Arab New Year Celebrations Toned Down Amid Gaza Violence

Dubai hotels scrambled to rework New Year's Eve plans Wednesday following a last-minute order to mute holiday festivities as Arab states sought to tone down celebrating amid the violence in Gaza.

Beachfront fireworks and live music acts at the recently opened Atlantis hotel were canceled as the tourist spot followed Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum's ban on "all forms of celebrations."

Concerts were also canceled elsewhere in the region, including in Israel's neighbors Egypt and Jordan. A much-publicized concert by Shakira, the Colombian singer of Lebanese descent who is widely popular across the region, appeared to be going ahead in the United Arab Emirates' capital, Abu Dhabi.

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Dubai's order, announced by state news agency WAM late Tuesday, called for "a somber tone as a token of solidarity" with the Palestinian people and with the Gaza Strip in particular.

It was unclear if the ban marked a halt to the city-state's famous New Year's Eve champagne dinners and raucous bar bashes. Many hotels, which are generally the only places licensed to serve alcohol, said they planned to keep food and drink sites open, but low key.

Habib Khan, manager of the four-star Arabian Courtyard Hotel & Spa, said he supported the move.

"One night (of) business does not make us rich or poor," he said when asked if business would be hurt by the decision.

New Year's Eve is one of the busiest times of the year for Dubai's hotel bars and restaurants, which typically offer lavish dinner packages at steep prices. The iconic sail-shaped Burj al-Arab offered one of the dearest: a gala post-cocktail feast followed by live music and dancing for 9,900 dirhams a person, about $2,700.

The hotel's parent, Jumeirah Group, which is controlled by Dubai's ruler, did not respond to requests for comment about possible changes to its New Year's plans.

A number of celebrations were also canceled in Jordan, where roughly half of the 5.8 million people are of Palestinian descent from families displaced in two wars with Israel since 1948.

Hotels, restaurants, malls and private parties in the capital, Amman, the Red Sea resort of Aqaba and the ancient rose-rock city of Petra, announced celebration cancellations in the local press.

In Amman, concerts featuring renowned singers May Hariri from Lebanon and Ahmad Sharif of Tunisia were called off. Organizer Elias Nehme said the singers initially planned to go ahead with their concert to benefit the war-stricken strip but later reconsidered, saying it is "a shame to have a party while people are dying" in Gaza.

Egypt's culture and information ministries canceled official celebrations, including a concert by Egyptian superstar Mohammed Mounir at the Cairo Opera House.

However, most private hotels and clubs appeared to be going forward with events.

At one of the two Four Seasons hotels in Cairo, guests paying 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($270) a person could be treated to a five-course celebratory dinner set to classical music.

"We are not canceling any reservations," said Ahmed Ghany, the restaurant manager. He added that no prospective guests had canceled their reservations. "The situation is far from us," he said.

Bahrain News Agency said all New Year's concerts in the Persian Gulf island state were canceled in support of Gaza following a directive by the king. Hotels were also asked to abide by the ruling.

In Lebanon, hardened by a devastating 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and a fierce power struggle by rival factions, preparations to celebrate the New Year went ahead.

Paul Ariss, president of the Restaurant Owners' Association, said there was "a festive mood" in the country despite the Gaza attacks. More than 60 percent of restaurants in the capital, Beirut, were fully booked, he said.

"Although our hearts are with the victims in Gaza life must go on after all," Ariss said.

In Syria, celebrations at the country's major hotels were postponed until Friday, organizers said. Churches also canceled New Year's celebrations and kept only prayers for the event.

Teams from the Syrian Red Crescent stood at traffic lights in downtown Damascus to collect donations for victims of the Gaza airstrikes.

In Baghdad, normal New Year's celebrations already had been shelved due to the Islamic holiday of Muharram, and hotels and private clubs that usually host parties called them off. Muharram is important to Shiite Muslims, who dominate the government. Parties were still being held in the predominantly Sunni northern Kurdish region.