'Celebrating the present and the future together': Saudi Arabia’s MDL Beast festival is nothing short of spectacular

The dance music festival is epic in size and ambition

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There is no doubt about it, Saudi Arabia's MDL Beast festival is the biggest dance music event to be held in the region.

While the electronic dance music (EDM) has gained traction in the Gulf over the past eight years, its appeal has often been limited to nightclubs and the occasional big festival.

For fans in the region, seeing the world’s best DJs perform in one venue with state-of-the-art production meant taking a trip to Europe to sample some of the many summer festivals.

But judging by what The National witnessed at MDL Beast in Riyadh on Friday night, this may no longer be the case. Organised by some of the industry partners behind many of the world's leading dance music festivals, the Riyadh event is momentous in both scale and ambition.

The venue is amazing

It is partly for this reason the event is staged in a venue about 45 minutes outside the capital.

With essentially nothing but desert surrounding it, a mammoth site was built to resemble a cross between a supersized car yard and a port.

Five stages were created, four of which employ the industrial motif, with walls and sound barriers created out of dozens of steel cargo crates. Flanking the elevated DJ booths are two columns of speakers suspended from cranes.

With those stages essentially tucked away in one corner of the site and the main stage a 10-minute walk away on the other side, the space in between is a hive of activity, with various stalls and pavilions that are home to everything from star DJ Steve Aoki’s burgeoning pizza chain Pizzaoki to standard carnival games.

One place of note is a cosy, soundproofed music studio where you can listen to producers compose new tunes on the spot. The space can be booked on the festival's website.

That mix of colour, inspiration and socialising serves to raise the anticipation for the major music acts who take to  the main stage.

The Big Best stage at Middle Beast Fest, held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from December 19 to 21, 2019. Courtesy: Middle Beast Fest.
The Big Best stage at Middle Beast Fest, held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia from December 19 to 21, 2019. Courtesy: Middle Beast Fest.

Once you get through the crowds to reach the venue, your patience is rewarded with its spectacular set up. The Big Beast stage is close in size to Abu Dhabi’s du Arena and has several seated and VIP stands, in addition to a large space for general admission.

The DJ decks are beneath a large LED screen that resembles a pearl, while on each side of the stage are beautifully rendered backdrops showcasing Riyadh’s various landscapes, from the its sweeping deserts to glittering buildings, including Kingdom Centre.

David Guetta and Steve Aoki strike the right note

With the opulent main stage built to suit the event’s historic significance, the DJs who perform respond in kind.

French DJ and producer David Guetta has a longer history of performing in Saudi Arabia than his peers, having been one of the first EDM acts to play in the kingdom as part of last year’s Ad Diriyah Grand Prix Formula E concert series.

Speaking to The National in June about that performance, he said he was proud to witness the "very big effort in Saudi Arabia to open to music and to artists".

"And as an artist, I play for the people and the people were obviously so happy … I felt like I was part of history, you know, and it was a great honour for me to be part of this," he said.

Guetta doubles down on those comments during his set .

“I am feeling emotional right now,” he says. “I feel like we are writing a new page of history together. And I am so proud to be part of this moment with you. With all the young people of Saudi, tonight we are going to celebrate the present and the future together. Are you ready for this?”

And with that, Guetta drops a brand new track he completed in the Saudi capital earlier in the day. "I promise that if I ever release this track, I am going to call it Riyadh," he says.

The chances are he probably will. With its blistering synth lines and grinding rhythms, the track is the kind of frenetic festival number the DJ often employs in the early part of his sets to charge the crowd immediately.

It was a sentiment echoed by Aoki. In his second performance in the kingdom in the space of six months, the US spinner says Saudi audiences are among the best he has come across.

“Your energy is amazing,” he says before leaving the stage. “Riyadh, I love you.”

MDL Beast final night highlights

The festival unleashes its biggest acts on Saturday, with sets to thrill and surprise audiences.

Kicking off the action at 7pm (Arabian Standard Time) on the Big Beast stage is veteran Saudi DJ Omar Basaad. He will be followed at 8pm set by Morocco's R3HAB, who is to be joined by Egyptian pop king Amr Diab in a cameo appearance.

Those musical mash-ups will continue throughout the night with Afrojack teaming up with Saudi Arabia's Rashed Al Majed during the Dutch DJ's 9pm set, while Bosnian-Swedish artist Salvatore Ganacci's midnight set will feature Egyptian singer Myriam Fares.

Swedish House Mafia's Sebastian Ingrosso will take the decks at 12.45am.

MDL Beast runs until Saturday, December 21. The venue is opposite the Durrat Al Riyadh Resort & Spa, Banban, at King Fahd Road, Exit 6, Durrat, Riyadh. Tickets begin from SAR 150 (Dh147). More information is available at www.mdlbeast.com