The Saudi desert party was like any other rave until the music stopped for the Islamic call to prayer, leaving attendees in ripped skinny jeans and combat boots to stand in silence.
Fifteen minutes later – religious duties completed – thousands of revelers got back to work. Men and women danced with abandon in a country where it would have been unthinkable five years ago.
The electronic music festival in Saudi Arabia this weekend shed light on the changes taking place in the conservative kingdom ruled by its controversial crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In just a few years, the prince lifted the ban on driving women, eased gender segregation and dishonored religious police, who used to roam the streets to punish restaurants that played music.
In contrast, the four-day festival called MDL Beast Soundstorm was government approved and included performances by global DJs like TiÃ«sto and Armin van Buuren. Organizers say more than 180,000 people attended the opening night, pushing the boundaries as the kingdom transforms.
“Let us move forward, let us picture ourselves the way we feel fit,” said Prince Fahad Al Saud, a member of the royal family and entrepreneur who attended a psychedelic patterned jacket and a sparkling eyeliner. “We are very keen to be part of the international community, but we cannot be stifled every time we try to move forward because it doesn’t sound like what you want to see.”
Indeed, the festival was part of a dizzying month in which Saudi Arabia hosted a Formula 1 race, two separate art biennials and a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron. All of this underscored the fact that all ostracism on the world stage has largely disappeared for Prince Mohammed, who faced a global outcry after the 2018 murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives in Istanbul.
The prince’s plans to diversify the oil-dependent economy call for the development of new sectors such as entertainment and tourism. And after closing the kingdom’s borders during much of the coronavirus pandemic, officials seem keen to make up for lost time – even as the omicron variant of the virus is causing cases to spike in other countries.
A general view during MDLBEAST SOUNDSTORM 2021 on December 17, 2021 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. | Bloomberg
At a recent international film festival in Jeddah, women walked the red carpet in sleeveless dresses and an openly gay man, Adam Ali, won the award for best actor. British model Naomi Campbell was pictured sitting on the floor in front of a traditional Saudi Arabian meal, eating with her hands.
âNow it’s all here and the world has come to us,â marveled Abdullah Alghamdi, 29, who attended the weekend rave. âHonestly, there are so many events that you don’t know where to go. “
The music festival stages were the most extreme of all. The women flaunted their style, wearing everything from skinny pants to maxi dresses and veils. Drunk men stumbled through crowds scented with the distinct smell of marijuana, alongside a limited but notable display of local queer culture. Alcohol and homosexuality are still illegal in Saudi Arabia, but the event created a carnival atmosphere, opening up the space to test the limits.
All of the critical voices were largely silent. Under Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s social openness was accompanied by a crackdown on national dissent. Driving this fact home, officials shut down all other large-scale events in Riyadh “for maintenance” during the duration of the festival, triggering sardonic government jokes forcing people to attend.
But for Ibrahim Fahad, a 21-year-old tourism and hospitality student, the festival was a long-awaited dream.
âI can’t even describe my feelings,â he said, posing for photos as the bass pounded the background. âBefore music opened in Saudi Arabia, I used to travel to see artists like The Chainsmokers. Now I can stay home because they are here.