RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—This conservative Islamic kingdom is rapidly trying to ease its staid social norms, allowing women to drive and travel freely in recent years, opening doors to tourists and tolerating music blaring from modern coffee shops.
Now: Dance parties in the desert.
A four-day music festival earlier this month is emblematic of how Saudis are learning to have fun in ways that are common in much of the world but long forbidden here. The festival—called Soundstorm and organized by a Saudi company called MDLBeast (pronounced Middle Beast)—featured 200 performances, including from big-name 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, most of them young Saudi men and women. Many mixed traditional national dress with LED sunglasses, marshmallow helmets, and the face paint common at rave parties, embellished with crystals and glitter.
“I can’t believe this is happening in Riyadh,” said Noura Mohammad, 28 years old, who attended Soundstorm with her twin sister, Ohoud, wearing matching white coats and pink bandannas over their niqabs, a traditional face covering. The sisters said they discovered electronic music through American movies but never expected to be able to dance openly in their home country.
“My sister and I love to dance,” Ms. Mohammad said.
Dancing and the mingling of sexes was once forbidden here. Now, the Saudi government is betting that events like Soundstorm will give the country’s large population of young people—about 70% of the population is under 35—an outlet for 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, rose to power in 2015 after his father became king, the kingdom has hosted pop concerts with Mariah Carey and Enrique Iglesias, spectacles like Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group and major sporting events, including the inaugural Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix earlier this month.
It is part of a new social contract Prince Mohammed is spearheading, giving young Saudis more social freedoms such as going to the movies, dancing and dressing less traditionally, while at the same time cracking down on political freedoms like critical speech. Authorities in recent years have detained hundreds of businessmen, senior officials and members of the royal family for various reasons, including allegations of corruption, that critics said was an attempt by the crown prince to consolidate power.
Activists say even the social changes don’t really address deeper issues such as premarital and same-sex relationships, which are still considered criminal acts under the kingdom’s Islamic law.
The loosening of social strictures is taking place amid the backdrop of restrictions in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi Arabia has recently seen a surge in Covid-19 cases, registering 524 cases Monday, nearly five times as many as the same day the week before. The kingdom hasn’t implemented any new restrictions in light of the rise, 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 enforced.
Some global celebrities have chosen to boycott events held in Saudi Arabia over its human-rights record. In 2019, rapper Nicki Minaj caused a stir when she canceled her headlining concert at the Jeddah World Fest music festival after receiving complaints from various human-rights groups criticizing her scheduled appearance.
Others have flagged their concerns. Ahead of the first Formula One race in the kingdom, champion driver Lewis Hamilton said he was uncomfortable racing in Saudi Arabia due to its human-rights record and hoped F1 would apply pressure to drive change.
But for many Saudis, the shift has felt transformational. The kingdom has announced a number of mega projects with the goal of positioning itself as a regional hub for entertainment, sports and art. Qiddiya, a 227 square-mile city located 28 miles outside of the capital Riyadh, will include a Formula One racing track, a
theme park, a water park, and sports facilities including football stadiums. The government also announced in October that it plans to convert an offshore oil rig into a luxury extreme sports amusement park. The kingdom, which until not long ago only allowed religious tourism, recently opened up to international visitors by launching its first tourist visa in late 2019.
Saudi Seasons is an initiative announced two years ago that aims to highlight the kingdom’s different regions through an array of cultural and entertainment activities. One of the biggest seasons, Riyadh Season, is currently taking place in the capital city’s region over a period of five months and will host over 7,500 events covering everything from music and culture to sports and food. The season has so far welcomed over 6 million visitors— mostly local—since it began in October.
With festivals like Soundstorm, Riyadh appears to be aiming to make the kingdom an attractive tourist destination in the region to foreigners, who often flock to neighboring Dubai, Beirut and Tel Aviv, all of which are popular for their thriving party culture and tolerance—be it to the consumption of alcohol or gender mixing. The U.A.E., of which Dubai is a part, recently decriminalized cohabitation for unmarried couples, consumption of alcohol without a license and carrying products containing marijuana. The consumption of alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.
Organizers of Soundstorm heavily promoted the event this year, held for the second time after its first edition in late 2019, even putting up massive billboards in Dubai.
The hope is to develop a Saudi concert scene virtually from scratch, said MDLBeast Chief Executive Ramadan Alhartani, who noted that this year’s event was much bigger in scale. Soundstorm’s lineup was studded with global DJs such as Tiesto, Chainsmokers, Bob Moses and Nina Kraviz, and by many popular regional musicians and pop stars.
“We’re here to amplify music culture by defining the next generation of live entertainment performers,” Mr. Alhartani said.
Before 2016, Saudi Arabia had practically no entertainment industry. There were no movie theaters and music concerts were banned or accessible to male audiences only.
“I encourage my 18-year-old son all the time to go out and attend the concerts,” said Dana Abdullah, 42, a jewelry designer from Jeddah. “I want him to have the experiences I couldn’t have at his age.”
The sudden change in some social norms has come with its own set of challenges.
Many young Saudis are still only mixing for the first time and some lines of social boundaries remain blurred. The majority of attendees at the festival were men, which made many of the women behave more reservedly.
“Although as much as this reminds me of festivals abroad, I am still very aware that I am in Saudi,” said Zahra Sultan, 29, a graphic designer who attended Soundstorm with her cousin.
“I don’t feel 100% comfortable dancing around freely just yet,” she said.
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