DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Dec 24, 2006 (AP)— With Santa Clauses in trendy malls, giant evergreen trees in hotels and holiday treats on supermarket shelves, Christmas cheer can't be missed in this Muslim city.
Holiday kitsch is at an all-time high in Dubai, where many residents revel in the commercial hype of the Christian holiday.
Winter temperatures are far from polar so Christmas trees are shipped in from colder countries, and pictures are snapped with Santa amid fake falling snow.
Despite a growing rift between some Muslims and Christians, it's no surprise Christmas-as-spectacle is all the rage in Dubai, home of an indoor ski park and man-made islands in the shape of palm trees.
Tensions between Christians and Muslims have escalated over the past year after cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper and Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI made comments linking Islam to violence.
The majority of the 800,000 citizens of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates are Muslim. But an estimated 3.7 million foreigners also live there. Though most are guest workers from other Muslim countries, many come from predominantly Christian countries including Britain.
All this good cheer stands in contrast to practices in conservative Islamic Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, which bans celebrating non-Muslim holidays, and Kuwait, where some wonder whether it's un-Islamic to wish people Merry Christmas.
Mohammed Al-Kandari, who heads the Kuwaiti Society of Sharia, or Islamic law, told the Al-Watan daily that Christmas and Christmas wishes contradicted Islam. Posters on several university campuses in the small Gulf country expressed similar views this December.
Not all Kuwaitis shun Christmas however, and moderates have called on government leaders to condemn these extremist stances. Still, such debates seem a world away from Dubai, long the liberal bastion of the Arabian Peninsula, where people from all religions flock to reap the benefits of its booming economy.
Emiratis seem to have cut through the religious debate and moved directly to the shopping frenzy that characterizes the holiday in much of the West. The Christmas spirit is most evident in Dubai's vast malls, which feature displays of fake snowmen, furry polar bears and fuzzy reindeer wagging their heads as they pull sleighs full of presents.
A snow storm erupts every hour at the Emirates mall, where for $11 children can visit Santa and receive a gift. Across town at the Ibn Batutta Mall, fake Santas strum electric guitars and sing "Jingle Bell Rock."
"It's lovely," said Donna Ralf, 43, from England, while shopping with her granddaughter. "It definitely makes home seem closer."
Many of Dubai's legion hotels and clubs have sent teenagers to slip fliers under apartment and office doors to attract well-heeled expatriates to luxurious Christmas dinners.
Emirati resident Loloa al-Khalifa, dressed in the traditional black cloak or abaya, said she welcomed the Christmas cheer while taking photographs of her 1-year-old son in front of holiday decorations at one of the malls.
"I'm very proud of our traditions but happy that my son is growing up in such a cosmopolitan city," said al-Khalifa, a Muslim.
Associated Press Writer Jim Krane in Dubai and Diana Elias in Kuwait City contributed to this report.
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