A Mideast crossroads gets the Christmas spirit

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Just days before Christmas, Ben Elliott-Scott was busy touching up the paint on a foam snowman and blasting trees with manmade flurries to turn them a wintery white. Santa was due to arrive soon, along with dozens of party guests at the exclusive villa nestled alongside a Dubai golf course.

His company, Desert Snow, specializes in artificial snow like that used on movie sets. He has several more jobs to finish before the holiday rolls around at wealthy homes across the city, many owned by members of its large and diverse expatriate population.

"It is very much our busiest time of year," the Briton said. "Christmas is taken almost more seriously in Dubai than it is at home. There are as many local families taking the pictures in front of the trees as expats."

The Middle East's brashest city is increasingly embracing the trappings of Christmas in a way that would be unthinkable in more conservative parts of the Muslim world. Christmas trees adorn shopping centers and residential neighborhoods, and high-end hotels try to outdo one another with extravagant and boozy holiday dinners.

An outdoor Christmas festival now in its second year broke its own attendance record by wooing more than 27,000 visitors over three days with caroling children's choirs, gingerbread houses and a snow fight zone.

Santa Claus is on hand to hear wishes in at least three Dubai malls, naturally including the one housing an indoor ski slope and its contingent of snow penguins. The dearth of chimneys in the sheikdom does not seem to be a problem.

It is in many ways a reflection of Dubai's emergence as a cosmopolitan, commercially minded crossroads in a region often associated with intolerance and upheaval. The city last month became the first in the Middle East to win the right to host the World Expo with a bid that emphasized its connections to the wider world.

"Dubai has taken itself one step forward to being a visibly global city. As a global city, you expect these things to happen here," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. "We've chosen this role. We have to get used to it."

While celebrations of Christmas have been growing in the United Arab Emirates city for several years, Dubai nonetheless retains its Islamic identity.

The call to prayer reverberates five times a day from the city's numerous mosques, and modest dress and behavior is expected from locals and foreigners alike. The local population, outnumbered more than four to one by foreign residents, prizes its traditional values.

That includes prohibitions on immodest behavior and public intoxication that have gotten several foreigners in legal trouble in recent years.

Still, the emirate's embrace of at least the more commercial aspects of Christmas stands out in the conservative Gulf. Neighboring Saudi Arabia's strict interpretation of Islam bans celebrations of the holiday. Kuwaiti lawmakers have criticized modest Christmas celebrations in that oil-rich country.

David Mitchell, an English engineer working in the Omani capital Muscat, traveled with his family to Dubai just to visit the Christmas festival earlier this month.

"There's nothing like this in Oman," he said while waiting in line to take his 2 1/2-year old son, Isaac, to meet Santa. "They appreciate the Christmas spirit" in Dubai, he added.

There has been little public outcry over the increasing prominence of the holiday in the Emirates, where authorities are quick to stamp out displays of public dissent and citizens rarely air their grievances in public.

Ismail al-Issawi, a professor of Islam at the University of Sharjah, just outside Dubai, said politics and economics play a role.

"Dubai now has become an international center with all kinds of religions. So it is up to them to make it possible for the various religions to have their holidays," he said.

The British Embassy in Dubai is using the festive season as a chance to remind its citizens of the UAE's tough drinking and public decency laws.

Its "12 Days of Christmas" awareness campaign on social media includes tweets such as "On the 5th day of (hash)Christmas my friend said to me; If I have overdone it, please send me home."

"Part of enjoying Christmas and New Year is to stay away from trouble," said Edward Hobart, the British consul general.

Non-Muslims in Dubai are expected to respect the city's Islamic roots, meaning organizers of Christmas celebrations walk a fine line in how they present the holiday. Nativity scenes and overtly religious carols celebrating the birth of Christ are rare.

But Christmas trees, including one set up in a traffic circle fountain filled with sudsy soap to suggest snow, are in. So are Santa hats, jingle bells and palm trees swaddled in gift wrap-style red bows.

One supermarket, apparently trying to appeal to all customers, is advertising: "This Christmas: Fresh halal turkey" _ a bird slaughtered according to Islamic dietary law.

There are other crossed cultural wires too.

Elliott-Scott, the artificial snow entrepreneur, said he has received requests for different colored snow, like pink and blue.

"Someone asked once if they could have gold snow, but it looked more like yellow," he said. "We suggested: `possibly it doesn't look the best.' Yellow snow should be avoided at all costs."


Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Dubai.


Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/adamschreck

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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