Skinny jeans, dance, music: giant rave breaks Saudi Arabia’s old borders

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 done, thousands of revelers got back to work. Men and women danced casually in a country where it would have been unthinkable five years ago.

The electronic music festival in Saudi Arabia this weekend has shed light on the changes that have propelled through the conservative kingdom under the leadership of its controversial Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In just a few years, the prince lifted a driving ban for women, relaxed gender segregation and dismantled the religious police, who roamed the streets to punish restaurants that played music.

In contrast, the four-day festival called MDL Beast Soundstorm was approved by the government and included performances from global DJs like Tiësto and Armin van Buuren. Organizers say more than 180,000 people attended the opening night, pushing the envelope as the kingdom transforms.

“Allow us to progress, allow us to represent ourselves in the way we feel fit,” said Prince Fahad Al Saud, a royal and entrepreneur who attended a psychedelic-patterned jacket and a sparkling eyeliner. “We’re very keen 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.”

busy month

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 by French President Emmanuel Macron. All of this underscored the fact that any ostracism on the world stage is largely over for Prince Mohammed, who faced global outcry after the 2018 murder of government critic Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents 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 for much of the coronavirus pandemic, officials appear eager to make up for lost time – even as the omicron variant of the virus leads to a surge in cases 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 queer man, Adam Ali, won the best actor award. British supermodel Naomi Campbell was pictured sitting on the floor in front of a traditional Saudi meal, eating with her hands.

“Now everything is here and the world has come to us,” marveled Abdullah Alghamdi, 29, who attended the weekend rave. “Honestly, there are so many events that you don’t know where to go.

queer culture

The music festival stages were the most extreme yet. Women flaunted their style, wearing everything from skin-tight pants to long dresses and face veils. Intoxicated men stumbled through crowds scented with the distinct smell of marijuana, alongside a limited but noticeable display of local queer culture. Alcohol and homosexuality are still illegal in Saudi Arabia, but the event created a carnival-like atmosphere, opening up the space to test the limits.

All critical voices were largely silent. Under Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s social openness has been accompanied by a crackdown on domestic dissent. Bringing that fact home, officials closed all other large-scale events in Riyadh “for maintenance” for the duration of the festival, sparking sardonic jokes about the government forcing people to attend.

But for Ibrahim Fahad, a 21-year-old tourism and hospitality student, the festival was a long-awaited dream.

“I can’t even describe my feelings,” he said, posing for photos as bass pounded in the background. “Before the music opened up in Saudi Arabia, I used to travel to see artists like The Chainsmokers. Now I can stay home, because they’re there.

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