More than 600,000 revellers descended on Riyadh this past weekend for Soundstorm, the largest music festival in the Arab world.
Hosted by the arts organisation MDL Beast, Soundstorm has grow since it first debuted in 2019, contributing $118.5m to the Saudi economy and creating 16,000 jobs. Each year, the festival greets artists and audiences from around the world, this year’s headliners included Bruno Mars, David Guetta, and Peggy Gou.
For many Saudis and those in the wider region, it’s the event of the year. Omar, 25, described it as an “oasis of freedom” and spoke excitedly about seeing DJ Khaled on Friday night; one of several artists returning to the festival, welcomed back by a crowd that knows how to have a good time.
Like Burning Man in Nevada, Soundstorm reinvents the landscape in which it is rooted, bringing the desert to life. The energy in Riyadh this weekend was electric: boys and girls often kept separate danced together, while middle-aged men in full thobe, shemagh and egal sashayed to pulsating dance music.
Drones put on incredible light shows in the sky above while legendary DJs Carl Cox and Ricardo Villalobos delivered powerhouse sets. Promoting his new album Twelve Carat Toothache, American superstar Post Malone headlined the first night of festivities with a crowd -pleasing setlist including 'Better Now', 'Circles' and 'Goodbyes'. Afrojack closed out the main stage on the final night.
The music moved from mainstream hip hop to regional acid house, while the crowd also got down to the beats of the Saudi DJ Cosmicat. “The number of opportunities we currently have in Saudi paved by MDL Beast and Soundstorm is marvellous,” Cosmicat says. A female producer in a male-dominated industry, her presence is doubly significant in a country looking to implement social reforms. “It was a lot different just a few years ago,” she admits.
Yasser, a 28-year-old record producer, was quick to comment on the festival’s liberal nature. “You see gay men coming with their boyfriends,” he says. “People from all over the region know this is a safe place,” he says. Strolling through the sprawling site, I saw as much with my own eyes.
The festival provides escapism. The otherworldly sound system and sheer immensity of the stages – some among the largest in the world – give it gravitas, a powerful feeling of communion with something larger and further reaching; namely, that Soundstorm speaks to the wider cultural shift occurring in Saudi Arabia.
It forms part of the Saudi Vision 2030, the plan to transform the Saudi economy and society open up the country to more visitors.
Espousing the more youthful and contemporary mindset of Vision 2030, MDL Beast has also set up an independent label for artists around the world. MDL Beast Records has signed DJ Viva, Salvatore Ganacci, and Steve Angello, whose remix of club classic ‘Show Me Love’ has been played more a 100 million times on Spotify.
As Soundstorm morphs into the Middle East’s very own Glastonbury, Saudi Arabia hopes to emerge as an entertainment leader among the Gulf nations.