Saudis still ban churches but celebrate Halloween
The Scary Weekend was held in the Saudi capital. People in creepy costumes or elegant clothes posted pictures and videos on social media. Major papers covered the event. For some it was a harmless entertainment opportunity but critics note its pagan or Christian roots.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Once banned as an example of Western decadence, Halloween has come to Saudi Arabia. This follows Valentine's Day, cinemas, concerts and rave parties with hundreds of thousands of people during COVID-19.
However, while the kingdom might have lifted traditional bans and strict restrictions on some cultural practices, the one thing that is still missing is freedom of worship for Christians and other believers, including the right to open their own churches and places of worship.
Scary Weekend was held last Thursday and Friday[*] in Riyadh's Boulevard Riyadh City,[†] with people dressed in creepy costumes while others showed off elegant clothes, with many posting videos and pictures on social media.
The event was part of the Riyadh Season currently underway in the Saudi capital.
Reporting on the event Arab News, a conservative Saudi newspaper, wrote: “While Halloween has long been shunned across the Gulf, attendees at the event described the occasion as a form of harmless entertainment”.
"It's a great celebration, honestly, and there's a spirit of joy,” said one first-time attendee. “In terms of haram or halal, I don't know about it. [. . . ] We celebrate it just for the fun of it and nothing else. We don't believe in anything”. For another one, "Actions are based on intentions. I'm just here to have fun.”
Such reactions might be a sign of a growing gap between Saudi society, especially young people, and the country’s clerical leadership, in charge of Islam’s two holiest sites.
The Scary Weekend is the second costume and mask-themed event in the Saudi capital. One held on 17-18 March, also in Boulevard Riyadh City, was described as the largest costume party in Saudi Arabia.
For the New York Times, the government-sponsored party was held strategically just before Halloween (31 October) so as not to be seen as an official endorsement for an event with pagan or, even worse, Christian roots.
Still, some radical Muslims in the once staunchly conservative country ferociously attacked the event unconnected to Islam, which was once banned as a source of sin, corruption and decadence.
By contrast, others have accused the Saudi religious establishment of double standards for not allowing al-Mawlid, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.
This year, on 22 February, Saudi authorities also marked the foundation of the kingdom with modern, secular celebrations unrelated to the country’s Islamic Wahhabi heritage.
All this follows economic and social reforms launched by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), which included the celebration of Valentine's Day, albeit without mentioning the name of the saint after which it is named.
As part of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan, some cultural practices have been liberalised, while increasing restrictions on political life.
To this end, MbS curbed the powers of the religious police, allowed concerts and cinemas, lifted the driving ban on women, and started a local entertainment industry.
[*] In Saudi Arabia, the week-end falls on Thursday and Friday.
[†] A recreational and commercial complex in the Saudi capital.