Lavish side of Saudi's Soundstorm: VIP helicopter arrivals and silver service shawarmas

The four-day event was held in the outskirts of Riyadh

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It is often said DJs are night owls, and that adage is proven true when stepping into the artist village of the Soundstorm festival in Riyadh.

The event, which took place across a mammoth site on the outskirts of the Saudi Arabian capital, took over a wing of a nearby hotel and transformed its lobby and adjoining conference rooms into a dimly lit cave dotted with plants and other tropical looking fauna.

With a blue camel as the decorative centre piece, DJs and managers sit on couches working on their laptops and phones. The hushed tapping of keyboards and the odd muffled conversation are the only sounds to be heard.

I remark on how eerie it all looks and an official explains this is a normal feature of large-scale dance festivals.

“This is a place for the artists to relax, chill and zone out,” my Soundstorm guide says.

“A lot of them are playing shows in a few hours so it’s a place to help them get into the mind-set. This is why there is no music playing, it is a distraction.”

Curating a playlist for a room full of successful DJs would have been an impossible job. Almost as challenging is the task of creating a menu in-tune with the adrenalin and anxiety some of the artists would feel ahead of playing to a 100,000-strong crowd.

This meant a variety of light bites, such as energy bars, a fridge stocked with several Starbucks drinks and mini cakes.

A bow-tied waiter is also making the rounds offering shawarmas from a silver platter. Seen kindly declining the offer on Sunday evening was American DJ Jeff Mills.

It is an hour before his set at the Underground 1 stage and the techno pioneer prepares by simply staring into space.

I realise that mental preparation is a gradual process.

It begins with the star DJs flying into the festival site in an unmarked white chopper an hour before show, and unwinding at the artist village for a while.

At T-minus 30 minutes until showtime, the spinners jump on a buggy for a five-minute ride to the green room, situated directly behind the stage.

The area can be best described as sports bar meets Bedouin village. A neon-lit pool table is available beside a seating area with an Arabic majlis and beanbags.

Sitting somewhat nervously in the latter is Saleh Al Obaidi, a popular Saudi illusionist tasked with reducing some of the tension by engaging Soundstorm’s biggest acts with a few magic tricks.

“So tell me about Armin van Buuren,” he asks me when I arrive for my interview. “Is he very popular?”

Besides being a dance music mega-star and pioneer, I assure him that from my professional experience, the Dutchman is a lovely person to deal with.

Van Buuren was suitably impressed by Al Obaidi’s shtick and that welcome dose of spontaneity surely helped easing whatever nerves he had before making his impressive Saudi Arabian performance debut.

Watching that show from distance were a select group in an oasis of their own.

The group in question are the VIB (Very Important Beast) ticket holders (which cost 8,999 Saudi riyals or $2,397 for the full four days), who watched the action unfold from a sprawling and lavish zone featuring mauve coloured couches, acrobatic performances and an exclusive array of food and drink options, including beef sliders drizzled with truffle sauce and fizzy cold brew coffee on tap.

More than the exclusivity and elevated position facing the main stage, the VIB lounge is also a good spot to get a few business meetings done, says Paul Schurink.

The Dutch environmental consultant, tasked by UK band Coldplay to make their coming 2022 world tour carbon neutral, says he held some important discussions while Afrojack and the Mambo Brothers played their sets.

“I spoke to a few DJs who were interested in making their shows more sustainable,” he says. “It’s not about making their light show any less, it’s about making everything more efficient without sacrificing the performance.”

I walk around Soundstorm in awe of the festival’s scale and ambition. It is past midnight and in the distance, a chopper is carrying the night’s closing performer, David Guetta.

Waiting for him is a group of Saudi youth, from fans to a jittery magician, keen to show how the kingdom has come to the party.

Scroll through the gallery below for pictures from 2021 Soundstorm:

Updated: December 19, 2021, 3:12 PM