When Omar Basaad rolled up to my hotel in his black SUV on a mild Jeddah morning, he arrived with an idea: "How about we go on a cruise?" he said. Not only was this a better plan than chatting in a lobby, it offered me a rare opportunity to see a different side of the coastal Saudi Arabian city.
It was a little after 9am and judging by the virtually empty roads of the picturesque corniche, with its healthy smattering of palm trees and cool blue ocean stretching out into the distance, the city's residents were still recovering from 41 days of non-stop revelry that characterised the inaugural Jeddah Season festival, an event that concluded last month.
To say the city made history is an understatement. Nearly every night of the festival featured a first-time entertainment event, whether a beachside film screening, spectacular light show or the appearance of pop-up restaurants by celebrity chefs Salt Bae and Nobu.
The most high-profile events, however, were the series of groundbreaking concerts held across the city. From superstar DJs Martin Garrix and Marshmello to the Backstreet Boys and K-pop act Super Junior, Saudi music-lovers were spoilt for choice. The festival finished with an epic seven-hour concert, which was attended by more than 10,000 people, featuring a line-up that included pop acts Janet Jackson, DJ Steve Aoki and Liam Payne, as well as a host of popular rappers led by 50 Cent and Future.
Jeddah crowds challenged star perceptions
Basaad, 30, an acclaimed international DJ in his own right, as well as a proud Jeddawi, watched all of this unfold. As we cruised past beachside shopkeepers opening their stalls, he explained that while the city may have returned to its normal rhythm, its social landscape has changed irrevocably.
"We can't go back now," he said. "The past month here has been amazing and the reaction from young people at what is going on here is great. The best analogy I can give you is that of a footballer who has been training all of his childhood. Now that player is 18 – an adult – and is ready to play in the professional leagues. This is where we are as young Saudis. We have grown up; we are ready to take the field."
The international music industry is also responding to how the country is coming of age. The reactions of the big-name acts to the enthusiastic crowds in Jeddah suggested they felt sheer surprise at the response they received, as well as heartfelt gratitude. It was enough for 50 Cent, famous for his usual social media trolling, to put that behaviour aside for one night and instead post a "thank you" to his Saudi fans. Marshmello was also moved enough to wave the Saudi Arabian flag at the end of his concert. Basaad said none of this surprised him, because Saudi music fans have always been passionate.
Aside from watching Martin Garrix perform, Basaad's favourite moments from the festival were watching these acts arrive in the kingdom, only to have their preconceived notions of the country shattered. "Look, everyone who comes has a certain idea of what they think it is like here," he said. "I mean, considering the world that we live in today, that is normal. People see things online or in the media. This is how it is. But I always tell these music guys, come to Saudi Arabia first and see it for yourself before you judge it."
That was certainly the case for Dutch DJ Afrojack. After his well-attended concert in Jeddah, Basaad set up a series of sessions and events during which Afrojack met local DJs and producers for some industry discussions. "He loved it. He spent an extra day here to chat with the youth," Basaad said. "He wanted the music culture here to grow and his sessions were inspiring to many people."
Young Saudis should seize the opportunities
These Jeddah Season events were held in collaboration with Basaad's burgeoning record label and consultancy agency, Coexist. The company's growth mirrors the kingdom's ambitions. It began as an online music platform where Basaad could drop his latest work, as well as being a place to showcase up-and-coming Saudi music talent. But Coexist has since expanded, and now Basaad works with major brands on marketing campaigns throughout the year.
"Everybody wants to get involved here now and tap into the creative spirit of the youth and the country," he said. "We try to bridge that gap and make what they are doing relevant to what is happening here today."
That includes some international fashion and entertainment brands, but also some of the kingdom's own companies. For example, Basaad composed music for the national airline Saudia, and his tunes are played to passengers at the end of their flights. As the planes taxi to their terminal, you can now expect to hear Basaad's smooth and steady beats mixed with synths and ouds coming from the cabin speakers.
"This is all part of a bigger project to give the airline a sonic identity," Basaad explained. "We are talking about the music you hear in their campaigns. Since it is an international airline, we composed something that balances various aspects, with the music being modern yet distinctly Saudi and Arabic. As an artist, I wanted the listener to feel like they are home when they hear it."
That idea of home is something Basaad is getting used to himself. His decade-long career has had him mostly performing abroad, whether it's on a European club tour or at last year's Unite with Tomorrowland show in Abu Dhabi. But now Basaad intends to spend more time in the kingdom as it continues to assert itself as an international cultural hub.
He said that to fulfil that goal, creatives across the kingdom have to get involved. "This is really the next step for us young Saudis," he said. "It is not enough to simply be exposed to these things. It is all about what we are going to do next.
"You need to have this drive to succeed and make the most of these opportunities. With Coexist, I can help that by getting all these creative people involved and linking them to these big companies, but ultimately, to succeed we will need that drive and that can only come from within."
With that in mind, Basaad urges fellow Saudis to take advantage of the opportunities that are becoming available to them. His advice is to "learn more and develop yourself. Go and meet other creatives or even learn from YouTube. There are so many things that we all can do to get us ready for the next level".
And with that, Basaad gave me an exclusive listen to his latest single. In a way, the moment was the perfect metaphor for what is happening in Saudi Arabia right now. The track may be in its demo stage, but its feisty and optimistic spirit could well make it a future hit.