Why the best is yet to come from Saudi creatives

From live music to literature, Saudis often led the way in the Gulf’s creative landscape

MDL Beast Fest was held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia this month. Courtesy MDL Beast Fest
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My working year began and is now ending in Saudi Arabia. In January, I was in the historic desert city of Al Ula to see a hologram performance of Egyptian singer Umm ­Kulthum and this week I was among the 200,000 people in Riyadh checking out the three-day MDL Beast festival, the biggest dance music event ever held in the region. Throw in a midyear sojourn to Jeddah to cover an arts festival and I can tell you this was the year the kingdom's cultural landscape was truly revitalised.

I choose that word carefully, as there have been a few suspect comments made by well-intentioned folk with regard to what is happening across Saudi Arabia. A lot of that chatter, found mostly in the press and on social media, went on to praise these developments in too-dramatic terms.

An acquaintance of mine on Twitter described an image I posted of thousands of fans at the MDL Beast festival dancing along to a set by French DJ David Guetta as similar to crowds breaking down the Berlin Wall in 1989. US actor Armie Hammer, who attended the festival, described what he saw as a "social evolution" similar to Woodstock.

While those comments were meant well, they actually do a disservice to the young people of Saudi Arabia.

While what was said by people such as Hammer sounds romantic, what's happening in the kingdom is not some new dawn, but a confirmation of what anyone paying attention to the region already knew: Saudis always had a deep love for arts and culture.  

Saudis have played an important role in the Arab world's cultural milestones. Examples include Raja Alem shaking up the patriarchal Arabic literary scene in 2011 when she became the first woman to win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. The award was given for her daring novel The Dove's Necklace, which is set in cosmopolitan Makkah.

Saudi Arabian writer Raja Alem. Photo by Barbara Zanon / Getty Images
Saudi Arabian writer Raja Alem. Photo by Barbara Zanon / Getty Images

One of the first musicians to tour the UAE was renowned singer Mohamed Abdo. In a 2015 interview with The National, he recalled how in the early 1970s he was invited by Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, to perform in the Emirates in a bid to kick-start its live music scene. "I remember the late, great Sheikh Zayed would always provide encouragement to us artists and was a big supporter of live music," Abdo said.

That pioneering streak continued with the next generation of Saudi artists. In the early 2000s, Qusai became one of the first Gulf rappers to perform in the US, while dance music producer Omar Basaad is one of the few acts from the region to regularly tour the world.

Speaking to Bassad minutes after 50,000 people watched his set at MDL Beast, he told me the best was yet to come when it comes to Saudi talent. "The scene here is absolutely buzzing and we are ready to go," he said. "It may have taken a while, but we are back on track and everyone now is watching us."

I can't wait to see what the kingdom's creatives have in store in 2020.


Read more:

'I don't have to leave Saudi for fun anymore': MDL Beast represents a 'paradigm shift' in the kingdom

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