Over 700,000 people attend Saudi Arabia’s largest music festival

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Riyadh (AFP) – Record-breaking crowds of more than 700,000 revelers flocked to the MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival in Saudi Arabia, authorities said Monday, at the end of the four-day event in the oil-rich desert kingdom.

The electronic music festival comes as Saudi leaders scramble to change its conservative image and diversify its economy, just years after the country lifted the ban on music and dance.

International artists and musicians, including French DJ superstar David Guetta, performed at the event despite calls for a boycott on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

The festival, which ended on a Sunday, comes as Saudi Arabia sees an increase in coronavirus cases amid growing fears about the spread of the new variant of the omicron.

Saudi Arabia has recorded the highest number of Covid-related deaths among the Arab Gulf countries, with more than 8,860 deaths.

Over the four days, 732,000 people flocked to the event, “one of the biggest music festivals in the world,” said Turki al-Sheikh, head of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority.

The festival, which ended on a Sunday, comes as Saudi Arabia sees an increase in coronavirus cases amid heightened fears over the spread of the new variant of omicron Fayez Nureldine AFP

Since its launch in 2019, the festival has hosted large crowds, mostly young men and women, who can freely mingle and dance to Western music.

“We’ve never seen anything like it in Riyadh before – crowds, music, VIP rooms, unconventional clothing for the kingdom,” a Saudi woman, who attended the festival, told AFP.

“Thirst for music”

The rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017 ushered in a number of reforms.

The rise of Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017 ushered in a number of reforms
The rise of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in 2017 ushered in a number of reforms Bandar AL-JALOUD Saudi Royal Palace / AFP / File

Social change in the conservative Gulf state has included lifting the ban on women driving and allowing concerts and other co-ed events.

Critics and human rights groups have said the kingdom is using major sporting and entertainment events to whitewash its poor human rights record, including the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Canadian pop star Justin Bieber came under fire last month for performing at the Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, with Human Rights Watch (HRW) saying the kingdom was using the sporting event to “distract from violations generalized human rights ”.

HRW released another statement ahead of the last festival, saying: “Performers and promoters should use their microphones, stages and screen time to speak out about human rights violations in Saudi Arabia or refuse to participate in any other of the Saudi reputational laundering programs. “

For the young Saudi woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, such events were nonetheless beneficial in providing an outlet for the younger generations.

“We are thirsty for music, entertainment, movies, laughter and going out. It’s like rediscovering our country and it makes us very happy,” she said.

Critics and human rights groups say the kingdom is using major sporting and entertainment events to whitewash its poor human rights record
Critics and human rights groups say the kingdom is using major sporting and entertainment events to whitewash its poor human rights record Fayez Nureldine AFP / File

Saudi Arabia is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil, investing heavily in recent years in tourism, entertainment and sports.

While sweeping social changes have been embraced by many, some remain concerned.

“How is it possible that these scenes are in the country with the two holiest sites (in Islam),” one person tweeted, alongside a video of men and women dancing together.


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Gerald R. Schneider