With rappers, race cars and raves, Saudi Arabia learns to party



RIYAD, Saudi Arabia — This conservative Islamic kingdom is quickly trying to relax its stilted social norms, allowing women to drive and travel freely in recent years, opening doors for tourists and tolerating the loud music of modern cafes.

Now: Dance evenings in the desert.

A four-day music festival earlier this month is emblematic of how Saudis learn to have fun in a way that is common in much of the world but long banned here. The festival, called Soundstorm and hosted by a Saudi company called MDLBeast (pronounced Middle Beast), featured 200 performances, including renowned DJs such as David Guetta.

Held north of the capital Riyadh in a vast desert, the electronic music event drew tens of thousands of people, mostly young Saudi men and women. Many mixed traditional national clothing with LED sunglasses, marshmallow helmets, and common face painting at rave parties, embellished with crystals and sequins.

Twin sisters Noura, left, and Ohoud Mohammad during Soundstorm ’21 at the MDLBeast music festival in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


Photo:

Iman Al-Dabbagh for the Wall Street Journal

“I can’t believe this is happening in Riyadh,” said Noura Mohammad, 28, who attended Soundstorm with her twin sister, Ohoud, wearing matching white coats and pink bandanas over their niqabs, a cover-up. traditional face. The sisters said they discovered electronic music through American films, but did not expect to be able to dance openly in their home country.

“My sister and I love to dance,” Ms. Mohammad said.

Dancing and mixing of the sexes was once prohibited here. Now the Saudi government is betting that events like Soundstorm will give the country’s large youth population – around 70% of the population under the age of 35 – an outlet for the entertainment they are used to seeing in. other parts of the world, but not here. The government aims to double household spending on cultural and entertainment activities inside the kingdom by 2030, as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to diversify and modernize the oil-dependent economy .

Since Prince Mohammed, the country’s de facto leader, came to power in 2015 after his father became king, the kingdom has hosted pop concerts with Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias, shows like Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group and major sporting events, including the inaugural Saudi Arabian Formula 1 Grand Prix earlier this month.

It’s part of a new social contract that Prince Mohammed is spearheading, giving young Saudis more social freedoms like going to the movies, dancing and dressing in less traditional ways, while cracking down on political freedoms like the critical discourse. In recent years, authorities have arrested hundreds of businessmen, senior officials and members of the royal family for a variety of reasons, including allegations of corruption, which critics say was an attempt by the Crown Prince to consolidate power.

A man dancing during Soundstorm ’21 at the MDLBeast Music Festival, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where dancing was banned until recent years.


Photo:

Iman Al-Dabbagh for the Wall Street Journal

A festival goer had his face made up with rave makeup and jewelry at the music festival earlier this month.


Photo:

Iman Al-Dabbagh for the Wall Street Journal

Activists say even social changes do not really address deeper issues such as premarital and same-sex relationships, which are still considered criminal acts under the kingdom’s Islamic law.

The relaxation of social restrictions is taking place against a backdrop of restrictions put in place to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi Arabia recently saw an increase in Covid-19 cases, registering 524 cases on Monday, nearly five times more than on the same day the week before. The kingdom has not put any new restrictions in place in light of the increase, visitors are required to show proof of double vaccination and from February booster shots will be mandatory after eight months of a second dose. Face masks are no longer required in outdoor public spaces, but social distancing measures are being applied.

Some global celebrities have chosen to boycott events in Saudi Arabia because of its human rights record. In 2019, rapper Nicki Minaj caused a stir when she canceled her headlining gig at the Jeddah World Fest music festival after receiving complaints from various human rights groups criticizing her planned appearance.

Others have expressed their concerns. Ahead of the first Formula 1 race in the kingdom, champion driver Lewis Hamilton said he was uncomfortable racing in Saudi Arabia due to his human rights record and hoped F1 would lobby to drive change.

Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton at the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah earlier in December.


Photo:

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC / Pool via REUTERS

The entrance to the city of Qiddiya, Saudi Arabia, seen in 2019. A Formula 1 racing track, theme park, water park and sports facilities, including football stadiums, are planned for the city .


Photo:

FAYEZ NURELDINE / AFP / Getty Images

But to many Saudis, the change seemed transformational. The kingdom has announced a number of megaprojects with the aim of positioning itself as a regional hub for entertainment, sports and art. Qiddiya, a 227 square mile city located 45 miles outside the capital Riyadh, will feature a Formula 1 racing track, Six Flags theme park, water park, and sports facilities including football stadiums. . The government also announced in October its intention to convert an offshore oil rig into a luxury extreme sports theme park. The kingdom, which until recently only allowed religious tourism, recently opened up to international visitors by launching its first tourist visa at the end of 2019.

Saudi Seasons is an initiative announced two years ago that aims to showcase the different regions of the kingdom through a range of cultural and entertainment activities. One of the biggest seasons, the Riyadh Season, is currently taking place in the Capital Region over a five-month period and will host more than 7,500 events spanning everything from music and culture to sports and entertainment. gastronomy. The season has so far seen more than 6 million visitors, mostly local, since its start in October.

With festivals like Soundstorm, Riyadh appears to aim to make the kingdom an attractive tourist destination in the region for foreigners, who often flock to neighboring Dubai, Beirut and Tel Aviv, all of which are popular for their party culture and tolerance. that to the consumption of alcohol or to the mixture of the sexes. The United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, recently decriminalized cohabitation for unmarried couples, the consumption of alcohol without a license and the transport of products containing marijuana. Consumption of alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

The organizers of Soundstorm have heavily promoted the event this year, held for the second time after its first edition in late 2019, even installing huge billboards in Dubai.

Male and female “Respect & Reset” officers deployed to protect attendees from harassment during the Soundstorm Festival stood near a dancer during the rally in the December desert.


Photo:

Iman Al-Dabbagh for the Wall Street Journal

The hope is to develop a Saudi concert scene practically from scratch, said MDLBeast chief executive Ramadan Alhartani, who noted this year’s event was much bigger. Soundstorm’s lineup was dotted with global DJs such as Tiesto, Chainsmokers, Bob Moses and Nina Kraviz, as well as many regional musicians and popular pop stars.

“We are here to amplify music culture by defining the next generation of live entertainment artists,” Mr. Alhartani said.

Before 2016, Saudi Arabia had virtually no entertainment industry. There were no movie theaters, and music concerts were either banned or only accessible to male audiences.

“I encourage my 18-year-old son to go out and attend concerts all the time,” said Dana Abdullah, 42, jewelry designer from Jeddah. “I want him to have experiences that I couldn’t have at his age.”

The sudden change in some social norms came with its own set of challenges.

Many young Saudis are still only mingling for the first time, and some social boundary lines remain blurred. The majority of festival attendees were men, which prompted many women to behave in a more reserved manner.

“Although it reminds me of festivals abroad, I’m still very much aware that I’m in Saudi Arabia,” said Zahra Sultan, 29, a graphic designer who attended Soundstorm with her cousin.

“I don’t feel 100% comfortable dancing freely yet,” she said.

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