Riyadh: Christmas with the Neighbours


Conscious of the norms of the host country, Valerio Zangoli and his family try to celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas in the most respectful – and inclusive - way possible. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where the Italian infrastructure Group is involved in the construction of a massive $20 billion metro network, they plan to celebrate it with other foreigners inside the housing compound where they live.

They are in luck this year because Christmas falls on a Friday, the day of rest in the Muslim world. This means that Zangoli, an Italian business development manager, can spend the entire day with his family and friends, enjoying a Christmas meal together.

Although many of his co-workers are returning home for the holidays, he will be working through the festive season. It helps having his family with him in Riyadh.

Elias Daher, a construction manager for the consortium to which Salini Impregilo belongs, is also staying to work. Since he’ll be alone on Christmas Day, the Lebanese-Italian Orthodox Christian plans to go to a restaurant with whoever else remains at the construction site. Since it’s a Friday, he will ask his colleagues of other nationalities to join him.

The consortium has a $5.94 billion order to build the longest of the network’s six lines, running at about 41 kilometers. With workers from many nationalities on the site, Salini Impregilo and its partners manage a multicultural environment that is unusual in a single country with a single religion. The comradery that develops among the workers often extends into their private lives.

As he has done in the past, Zangoli will invite his Muslim friends to join them for the Christmas meal. “It’s like Thanksgiving (in the United States),” says Zangoli, who had spent some time in America and was struck by how inclusive was the autumn celebration, with families opening their homes to strangers. Christmas is obviously different, but he likes to repeat that spirit of inclusiveness with people from different creeds and cultures. “It’s the spirit of sharing something together,” he says.

Zangoli’s wife, Nisansala, says they and their three children will be celebrating Christmas Day by preparing with their neighbors a big lunch to be held outdoors under the palm trees of the garden inside the compound. Given the nature of the compound, they have become friends with everyone who lives there, forming a tight community. Nisansala says each family will bring a dish representative of the cuisine of their country. “There will be pasta, rice, meat, plantain…” she says. “It will be a fusion of different traditions and foods.”

Although she is Sri Lankan, Nisansala will prepare either gnocchi or tagliatelle – both of which are Italian dishes. “The one thing that my husband asks is for fresh pasta to be made for Christmas,” she says.  At the table will be people from a variety of countries: Spain, Greece, Venezuela, Lebanon, Pakistan, India... “We like it here because we are all together,”  she says. “It’s very multicultural.”

Riyadh: Christmas with the neighbours

A Saudi Muslim family who lives in the compound will also join them, she adds. No salami or alcohol will be served in respect of the local norms. This sense of inclusiveness is also on display at the construction site.

Mohammed Aljuaid, a Saudi quality assurance and quality control engineer, said he liked how the company accommodated the needs of its employees. Whenever workers of a given country or religion need to observe a celebration, it adjusts their schedules or tries to meet their requirements. “If India is having its national holiday, it adorns the site with flags of the country,” he says.

In Aljuaid’s case, it allows him to take time every day to pray. “I feel like the company takes care of me,” he says.