Riyadh: 700,000 at a desert rave during Covid-19 pandemic
MDLBeast Soundstorm, a four-day electronic music event, a first in the Wahhabi kingdom. Young men and women dance side by side, stopping at the moment of Islamic prayer. HRW critical and recalls abuses and human rights violations. Muslims abroad also slam behaviour contrary to morality in the land of Mecca and Medina.
Riyadh (AsiaNews) - One of the largest music gatherings ever organised since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, a four-day electronic music event in the middle of the desert with a final rave party with record numbers. The Saudi Arabia of Mohammed bin Salman was the host nation in what seems to be another step on the Wahhabi kingdom's path of reform.
"We had never seen anything like this in Riyadh before," one young Saudi woman told Afp on condition of anonymity. "Crowds, music, rooms reserved for VIPs," she added, "and clothing that was unconventional for the kingdom, to say the least.
Organised in the days leading up to Christmas, MDLBeast Soundstorm festival attracted 732,000 people to the desert north of the capital. Turki Al-Sheikh, head of the Saudi Entertainment Authority, described it as 'one of the most popular music events in the world'.
Many videos were posted on social networks by those present, showing boys and girls - despite decades of separation of the sexes in public and the guarding of a male family member still active - dancing side by side to electronic music by the popular French DJ David Guetta.
For the Saudis, events of this magnitude mark a historic change, equal to allowing women to drive. "We have a thirst for music, entertainment, films, laughter and going out,' confirms the young woman, who says, 'It's like we're rediscovering our country and that makes us very happy. Even more so in this critical phase due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has prompted many governments around the world to cancel events, concerts and public displays, especially in this period traditionally dedicated to New Year's Eve celebrations.
Ibrahim Fahad, a 21-year-old tourism student, talks about a long-cherished dream: 'Before the opening of music in Saudi Arabia,' he says, 'I used to travel abroad to see artists like The Chainsmokers. Now I can stay at home, because they are the ones who come".
Prince Fahad Al Saud, a member of the royal family present at the event in a psychedelic jacket, adds that the country is "eager to be part of the international community" and rejects those who seek to "stifle" the path of change because it is insufficient or too slow.
The party in the Saudi desert seemed similar in every way to others around the world, until the music stopped for the call to Islamic prayer. Fifteen minutes later, the religious obligations observed, men and women once again indulged in dancing.
However, there was no shortage of critical voices, such as that of Human Rights Watch (HRW), which on the eve of the event urged the artists to "use microphones and the stage to denounce human rights abuses". There have been several attacks from part of the Islamic world abroad, according to which Riyadh is guilty of encouraging behaviour contrary to Muslim morality in the land of Mecca and Medina.
In trying to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s "Vision 2030" programme includes upgrading the local version of Islam.
Recent reforms have included the social and religious changes, such as grating women the right to drive and access to stadiums.
However, all this has been overshadowed by the arrest of senior officials and business people, the crackdown against activists and critical voices, the sectarian convictions, and the Khashoggi affair.