More than 730,000 people attended Saudi Arabia’s MDLBeast Soundstorm music festival last week and, according to media reports, attendees were drunk, women wore skin-tight pants and men and women shared dance floors.
The four day electronic music festival in Riyadh, called by the authorities “the top of the most-attended musical event across the world,” witnessed the participation of some of the biggest international as well as local names in the industry, including Tiesto, Martin Garrix, Future, David Guetta, Armin Van Buuren, Steve Aoki, Jason Derulo and Swedish DJ Alesso, and Arab stars such as Amr Diab, Balqees Fathi, Tamer Hosny and Myriam Fares.
Prince Fahad Al Saud, a royal family member and entrepreneur, told Bloomberg: “Allow us progress, allow us to represent ourselves in the way that we feel fit. We are very eager to be part of the international community, but we can’t be stifled every time we try to make progress because it doesn’t look like what you want to see.”
Chief creative officer Ahmad Alammary, also known as Saudi DJ Baloo, told Arab News: “We work with a lot of passion, because it is music, and music really does inspire a lot of love. It’s exciting to work in a creative field, but even more exciting to spread joy. Working creatively to spread joy is the perfect combination of ingredients.”
“The venue blew my mind on how big and amazing it was,” said Prince Saud Al-Saud, 25, from Jeddah, who attended the event with his sister, Deema. “I also felt like I was out of Saudi Arabia. It really feels like it can rival Tomorrowland.
“The music was incredible and it was amazing to see so many people having a lot of fun. The only negative was the amount of walking we had to do to reach the venue. In addition, I’d like to point out the behaviour of some of the attendees. It was appalling and shameful to see.”
Bloomberg reported that the scenes at the music festival were the most extreme of any yet. Women flaunted their style, wearing everything from skin-tight pants to full-length robes and face veils. Inebriated men stumbled through crowds perfumed with the distinct scent 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-like atmosphere, opening the space to test limits.
The artists played despite calls for a boycott of Saudi Arabia for its human rights record. Human Rights Watch (HRW) had issued a statement saying Saudi Arabia is trying to whitewash its human rights record by using international artists and celebrities.
HRW said: “The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator. On October 2, 2020, Human Rights Watch launched a global campaign to counter Saudi government efforts to whitewash its dismal rights record.”
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said: “Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly. So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses…
“Such events can serve to counteract negative scrutiny of the Saudi government’s human rights violations, including the Khashoggi murder, and undermine efforts to hold Saudi officials accountable.
“Performers and promoters should use their microphones, stages and screen time to speak out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia or refuse to participate in yet another one of Saudi’s reputation laundering schemes.”