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La culture pop dans la péninsule Arabique

Electronic Dance Music Festivals in Riyadh: Pop Culture as a Space of Cooptation and Contestation

Nora Derbal

Résumés

En une décennie, l’Electronic Dance Music (EDM) est passée d’un statut de sous-culture underground à celui de genre musical parmi les plus populaires chez les jeunes Saoudiens. Les fêtes qui étaient auparavant de l’ordre d’une pratique intime et semi-légale de la frange la plus cosmopolite de la jeunesse branchée se sont muées en gigantesques raves sous l’égide de l’État. L’article discute l’adoption par l’État saoudien de la pop culture globalisée comme une stratégie du nouveau nationalisme saoudien, annoncé par le plan Vision 2030. Au nom de la diversification de l’économie, l’État saoudien investit aujourd’hui dans les festivals musicaux locaux. Cependant, plutôt que d’envisager la jeunesse saoudienne comme un simple objet de politique étatique, l’article suggère que les jeunes générations naviguent, rejettent ou s’approprient ces nouveaux espaces culturels et les transforment en arène dans laquelle plusieurs types de pratiques subversives sont possibles.

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Introduction1

  • 1 I presented a first version of this paper at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Assoc (...)
  • 2 MDL Beast Media House, “A 400,000 Strong Crowd Showed up to Marvel at the Record-Breaking Soundstor (...)

1In December 2019, the MDL Beast festival ‘Soundstorm’ catapulted Saudi Arabia’s electronic dance music (EDM) scene into the spotlight. The state-sponsored mega event just outside the capital Riyadh, which according to official statements attracted more than 400,000 music fans over the course of three days,2 invites us to reconsider the place of global pop culture within Saudi society. Within the course of a decade, EDM grew from an underground subculture into one of the most popular music genres among youth in Saudi Arabia, and from an intimate, semi-legal pastime practice of affluent and cosmopolitan young men and women, into state-sponsored mass parties, which attract above all male Saudi youth.

2In this article, I discuss the effects of the Saudi state’s embrace of globalized pop culture as a strategy of the new nationalist discourse, heralded by Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s socio-economic long-term strategy announced in 2016. How has EDM culture in Saudi Arabia changed as it developed into a product of mass consumption? How has the authoritarian state’s cooptation of EDM parties impacted the EDM scene in Saudi Arabia? At the heart of my analysis is “MDL Beast”, a state-sponsored brand that has come to represent EDM music, art and culture in and of Saudi Arabia, and “Qiddiya” (in Arabic al‑Qiddiyya), hailed as the kingdom’s new capital of entertainment, sports and the arts. Both state projects are centered on Riyadh city and were launched in the name of the ‘diversification’ of the economy.

  • 3 Wakefield, 2014; Exell, 2016; Mirgani, 2017; Gray, 2017; Freer and Kherfi, 2020.
  • 4 Historically, the leiwah was a performance and ritual of specific Emirati communities of African or (...)
  • 5 See, for example, Khalaf, 2000; Krawietz, 2014.

3The Saudi state’s embrace of the arts and culture as part of a specific political trajectory is in itself nothing new or exceptional. In many global and regional contexts, state support for the arts and culture is common and it is commonly tied to politics. European states, like Germany and France, have a long history of state involvement (financial, material, ideological) in cultural production. The multitude of interests in culture (and its related industries) is highlighted by the title “European Capital of Culture”, annually awarded by the European Union, a status which is associated with significant economic impulse, urban transformation, and social benefits for the designated locality. As for the Arabian Peninsula, a growing body of research analyzes how the Gulf states have turned towards the contemporary arts by investing in spectacular art museums, biennales and exhibitions as part of an entangled economic and cultural strategy, connected with state branding, economic transformation, and a desire to modernize.3 Cultural policy in the United Arab Emirates has appropriated and (re-) invented cultural traditions, like ‘traditional’ music practices, such as the leiwah [laywah]4 as part of a process of heritage revival which projects a unified national identity.5

  • 6 Under King Salman, the Saudi state has involved itself in a number of projects in the domain of the (...)
  • 7 See Menoret, 2014; Thompson, 2019.

4Yet, why should the Saudi state choose to appropriate globalized EDM culture? In other words, why is the Saudi state heavily investing in this particular musical sector?6 In this article, I explore how EDM festival culture is part of the modernization plans of the new political elite in Saudi Arabia. EDM, I argue, is particularly useful in communicating a new image of the kingdom to a global audience, one which radically departs from the dominant Wahhabi image of the state. EDM festival culture is instrumental in reorienting the representation of Saudi youth in particular, as modern, cosmopolitan, globalized, fun, in short as “normal” youth, all of which are deemed to attract foreign direct investment and tourism to the kingdom. Cultural events and entertainment, like EDM festivals, cater to the needs of the new generation (al‑jīl al‑jadīd), who have become a central element of the political discourse in Saudi Arabia, without having to address more complex and politically sensitive issues, such as the growing wealth gap and a lack of perspective that many young Saudi men experience in Saudi Arabia today.7

  • 8 In this article, I focus only on those audiences who go, or used to go, to EDM parties in Saudi Ara (...)

5Rather than understanding Saudi youth as mere objects of state policy, however, my analysis highlights that Saudi youth navigate the new cultural spaces. While some reject state-sponsored mass parties for various reasons,8 others embrace and appropriate the new spaces and turn them into an arena where all kinds of subversive and sometimes deviant practices become possible. EDM festivals have emerged as spaces in which young Saudis can challenge dominant norms of public conduct with regard to heteronormativity, female autonomy, and drugs, and where youth can openly rebel against the rules. The large crowds gathered at EDM parties today develop peculiar dynamics of their own, which go beyond the intentions of the state. This mob action can take the form of outward disobedience towards security personal, sexual harassment and vandalism, although couched in terms of harmless “fun”.

6Ironically, this happens under the gaze and protection of the state, which cannot afford to shut down music festivals because of their value for rebranding the image of the nation. This analysis highlights the state’s attempts to regulate dancing crowds that seem out of control, through various measures. Yet, at the end of the night, rather than their rigid regimentation, the state resorts to controlling and disseminating a “clean image” of music events through official censored media and, more importantly, through controlling the social media memory of the events. Despite significant shifts in official representation, EDM parties continue to offer important spaces for youth in Saudi Arabia, spaces that allow to challenge mainstream culture and dominant moral standards. As a lens of state-society relations, the EDM scene of Saudi Arabia thus offers us an important view onto strategies and practices of agency and resistance amid the authoritarian — and increasingly repressive — context of the Arab states of the Gulf.

7The article is based on participant observation and interviews. In 2009-10, I was a visiting MA student at King Abd al‑Aziz University, and in 2012-13, a doctoral candidate visiting Effat University, both located in Jeddah. During these early stays, I regularly joined underground EDM parties around Jeddah (and two women-only dance parties in Riyadh). In 2019 and 2020, I returned to Jeddah and Riyadh for fieldwork on a different subject, and attended several state-organized EDM festivals. The analysis is based on informal conversation during these events and formal interviews, conducted in January and March 2020, in Jeddah and Riyadh.

Globalized EDM in Saudi Arabia: From Underground to Mainstream

  • 9 Pop culture or popular culture is a term that is notoriously hard to define. Attempts to grasp the (...)

8Electronic dance music is in many ways pop culture at its best.9 The label EDM gathers numerous music genres, including dance-pop, house, techno and trance. Characteristically, the music is driven by repetitive drum beats, tied together by DJs, who perform in front of the dancing crowd. EDM music gained its mainstream popularity in Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the soundtrack of a generation that lived seemingly endless raves and club nights, fueled by the consumption of alcohol and, more typically, other substances. The first generation of Saudi underground DJs often came across the genre in the 2000s in the United States or Europe, where they experienced the club culture of Amsterdam, Berlin, or London, while traveling or studying abroad. Over the last two decades, regional EDM hotspots emerged in Beirut, Dubai and Sharm El Sheikh, cities with a(n) (in)famous nightlife, where many influential Saudi DJs have performed. In short, EDM in Saudi Arabia is part of a global trend that is associated with substance abuse, loose sexual norms, and collective frenzy.

  • 10 Bayat, 2010, p. 146.
  • 11 Vogel, 2003, p. 749–68.
  • 12 Al-Atawneh, 2010, p. 107–13.
  • 13 Ibid., p. 111.

9Saudi Arabia has a long history of controlling and regulating fun practices, as an expression of moral and political order. Asaf Bayat speaks of “a concerted anti-fun campaign,”10 initiated by the purist Wahhabi movement, which followed the call for reform of Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al‑Wahhab (d. 1792) and culminated in the mandate of the Committee of the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue (Hay’at al‑amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-l-nahy ʿan al‑munkar). The committee, known as the religious police or locally al‑hay’a, functioned as a specific Saudi version of muḥtasib: a representative appointed by state officials, whom Islamic constitutional law describes as the official censor of public morals, a “morals policeman.”11 Until King Salman’s ascension to the throne in 2015, they did — at least officially — retain major authority over the moral and socio-cultural sphere in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia never had a comprehensive ban on music, like Afghanistan, but Saudi religious scholars have condemned music for its moral implications. Their fatwas described songs as “idle tales” and “vain amusement” (lahw) banned by the Qur’an (Q. 31:6).12 According to senior religious scholars, like Muḥammad bin Ṣāliḥ al‑ʿUthaymīn (d. 2001) and ʿAbd al‑ʿAzīz bin Bāz (d. 1999), listening to music would demolish morals and arouse frivolous sentiments. Musical performance would provide an arena for seduction, temptation and ultimately chaos (fitna) among the Muslim community. The official condemnation of musical practices included regional celebrations and local festivals, described by the religious scholars as abominable acts (munkarāt).13 Members of the religious police, the muṭawwaʿa, have not shied away from storming musical performances, demolishing musical instruments and beating up musicians.

  • 14 Otterbeck, 2012, p. 341–53.
  • 15 Urkevich, 2014 and Urkevich, 2011, p. 401–9; for musical performance as part of alternative healing (...)
  • 16 “Ministry of Culture to Establish Tariq Abdul Hakim Music Museum,” Saudi Press Agency, August 17, 2 (...)

10With the widespread dissemination of music through new technologies and media, during King ʿAbdallāh’s reign (2005–15) a controversial debate about the place of music within Saudi society emerged.14 Despite the official condemnation of music, Saudis have nurtured diverse musical traditions over time. The work of the music ethnologist Lisa Urkevich documents extensive traditions of folk and traditional music, and their incorporation into contemporary urban life, which traditionally included all-night musical drum parties, the so-called samrāt.15 Musical traditions of Saudi Arabia have not been limited to “traditional” or “local” expressions, Saudi musicians are equally found in pop music and music subculture, often resonating with regional, Western and global currents. Among the first generation of Saudi pop stars count Muḥammad ʿAbduh (born 1949 in Abha), Talāl al‑Maddāḥ (born 1940 in Mecca), and ʿItāb (born Ṭarūf ʿAbd al‑Khayr Ādam, in 1947 in Riyadh), the latter remembered as one of the first female pop singers of the Gulf. These singers rose to fame before the Islamic Awakening (saḥwa) movement took foot in Saudi Arabia, which forced them to largely perform outside of the kingdom, a factor which contributed to their celebrity throughout the Arab world. Only in August 2020, the Saudi Ministry of Culture announced the establishment of a music museum in Jeddah, honoring the Saudi musician Ṭāriq ʿAbd al‑Ḥakīm (born 1918 in Taif), a step which highlights the state’s efforts to rehabilitate the country’s music history. Today, the Arab music industry has a firm foot in Saudi Arabia, where regional pop idols, like the Iraqi Mājid al‑Muhandis and the Bahraini Rāshid al‑Mājid, are considered venerated mainstream.16

  • 17 Otterbeck, Mattsson, and Pastene, 2018, p. 267–86.
  • 18 There are different explanations about the meaning of the term kasra, which stems from the Arabic r (...)
  • 19 The term ṭaggagāt is today considered derogatory by some of the musicians, since it alludes to past (...)
  • 20 Maneval, 2019, p. 82–83.
  • 21 Ibid., p. 78.
  • 22 MDL Beast website, “EDM Story with Saudi Local Talent, B-Roll,” MP4, 2019, https://mdlbeast.studiom (...)

11The Saudi underground EDM scene centered on Jeddah, where it emerged in a semi-private, semi-public setting, a space where the public and the private met. Musical subcultures, such as a Saudi heavy metal scene,17 local hip hop, kasrāt music (a musical genre associated with Saudi youth of Bedouin origin),18 ṭaggagāt parties (originally female drummer bands that entertain dance / shakshaka parties),19 like EDM parties constituted what Stefan Maneval has described as Saudi “counterpublics”: spaces inhabited by alternative lifestyles and practices, which unfold “within the confines of an architecture that, by excluding certain parts of the Saudi public, creates a more or less private setting.”20 EDM DJs performed in private homes, compounds, and beach resorts, in other words in privatized urban spaces, “where private capital secures pockets of a lifestyle that deviates from the moral standards of the wider social environment.”21 The Saudi veteran DJ Baloo described the Saudi underground EDM scene as, above all, a “very private,” “very low key,” and a “very tight community.”22 Dance parties gathered a small, familiar crowd of middle class and affluent cosmopolitan youth, often starting with ten to fifteen people on an improvised dance floor. All guests were either invited or accompanying an invitee, in other words, underground parties were exclusive gatherings. Yet, the gatherings were not exclusive to Saudi nationality, although Jeddawis with their often diverse ethnic backgrounds formed the majority of the guests. The parties, which I attended between 2009 and 2013, counted some Westerners like myself, Arabs (Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians) and (though fewer) Asian expats, most of whom attended or had attended Jeddah’s private high schools and colleges, and thereby made friends within elite circles.

  • 23 The complex contemporary situation has become subject of cultural production, as in ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāni (...)

12The Saudi underground EDM scene challenged deep-seated cultural norms. While mainstream music events before 2016 and Vision 2030 usually mirrored the gender-segregated nature of Saudi society, with all female bands catering to women’s gatherings like weddings for example, EDM parties gathered a mixed crowd, with less rigid norms regarding heteronormative sexuality. This allowed, for instance, homosexual or engaged Saudi couples to be seen together at the events, whereas moral standards otherwise set clear boundaries for interaction. Historically, a strict moral code of conduct barely permitted face-to-face encounters between bride and groom before the night of marriage. This has been changing fast in recent years, a change accelerated by new information technologies, which ease interactions outside of the control of the involved families.23 It seems to me that the families of the non-married couples who met at EDM parties knew of these encounters and were largely tolerant. Some couples, including ‘mixed’ couples (of different passport holders), date their beginnings to these underground encounters where flirtation was common. Yet, flirtation was not excessive because at the end of the day, this was a small and “tight” community, often with family, school, or work relations preceding and overlapping with the party connections.

  • 24 I noticed, however, that some Saudis do not mind to be seen with a drink at musical events or parti (...)
  • 25 Zubaida, 2014, p. 209–23.

13In a similar manner, the open consumption of alcohol at underground EDM events deviated from official norms. Although Saudi Arabia upholds, in theory, a strict ban on alcohol, the kingdom has a lively (though under researched) drinking culture. It is common among some Saudi elites to drink in their private homes and celebrations, but most are careful to conceal their drinking.24 Remarkable in this regard is Maḥmūd Ṣabbāgh’s recent feature film Baraka yuqābil Baraka (2017), in which several scenes feature alcohol and address substance (ab)use. The implication of the film that the ‘rough’ classes struggle with drinking, while Saudi elites cultivate refined drinking practices is suggestive of the multiple dimensions social class difference produces in contemporary Saudi Arabia. It resonates with Sami Zubaida’s observation that alcohol functions as an important boundary marker in Arab societies.25 The EDM parties which I attended in and around Jeddah did not openly serve alcohol (except one beach party in Durrat al‑ʿArūs, the holiday resort north of Obhur [Ubḥur], which had a beach bar that served vodka, whisky and gin among other things). Rather, outside of the spotlight of the actual parties, either the host(s) or other attendees shared ‘mixed’-drinks, usually vodka or gin added to thick fruit juices or lemonade. Rumor had it that ‘the Lebanese’ sold the best booze (behind the scene) and some European expats engaged in lively business, selling bottles of home-brewed wine and champagne to Saudi youngsters. Other friends met for strong drinks (enjoyed pure while driving around) before “going out.” In sum, underground EDM parties alluded to the great diversity of social norms which exist in Saudi Arabia’s urban centers beyond the surface of a dominant public morality, and often overlap with other moral geographies of social glass, gender, and nationality/ ethnicity, as well as the exclusions that these registers produce.

  • 26 Poster and drums can be bought in the MDL Beast online shop, see “Soundstorm 2019,” MDL Beast (blog (...)
  • 27 Meddeb, Hind. Electro Chaabi. Documentary, Monoduo Films, 2014; Anonymous, 2020.
  • 28 Alameri and Alrushud, “DJ Steve Aoki Spins Mohammed Abdu Remix at MDL Beast for Saudi Fans,” Arab N (...)

14The most popular (and veteran) Saudi DJs, like Baloo (Aḥmad al‑ʿAmmārī), Vinylmode (Muhannad Naṣṣār), Dish Dash (Ḥasan and ʿAbbās Ghazzāwī), and Cosmicat (Nūf Sufyānī), all perform globalized EDM. I mean by this that their musical material is not specifically “Saudi,” but rather based on an exogenous musical culture, with little reference to local musical traditions. The visual representation of Saudi EDM festivals today might employ symbols of traditional local music culture, like the ʿarḍa sword dance (pictured prominently on the advertisement poster of the 2019 MDL Beast festival Soundstorm) or the ṭār/ṭīrān (a Najdi style drum, which the MDL Beast turned into a colorful art project).26 Originally symbols of the Najd province, Saudi Arabia’s central region and home of the royal family Al Saud, these musical practices (re)emerge in the context of today’s EDM festivals, stripped of their specific regional context, as symbols of a homogenous and unified ‘Saudi’ identity (an observation that resonates with Sebiane’s analysis of leiwah in the UAE). Saudi EDM sound, on the other hand, resonates strongly with European and US productions, for instance, in the choice of beats, rhythms, and the use of the English language for the occasional verses or voices in the tracks. In other words, unlike Egyptian mahragānāt (also known as electro-shaʿbī), which is an EDM practice with a distinct local sound,27 Saudi EDM does not sound specifically Saudi. Ironically, international DJs, who were invited to perform at the Soundstorm festival in 2019, like the American-Japanese DJ Steve Aoki, chose to spin musical material borrowed from the local legend Muḥammad ʿAbduh and teen star Mājid al‑Muhandis to meet what they imagined to be the taste of their Saudi fans.28

  • 29 Romdane, “Jeddah’s Underground Techno Scene Is Thriving,” Mille (blog), December 14, 2018, https:// (...)
  • 30 Saeed, “‘I Never Viewed Myself as That’: Why Cosmicat Wants to Stop the Idea She Was Saudi Arabia’s (...)
  • 31 Around minute 3, in “EDM Story with Saudi Local Talent, B-Roll.”
  • 32 “Organizer Q&A: Baloo (MDLBEAST),” Festivaladvisor, December 16, 2020, https://festivaladvisor.com/ (...)
  • 33 MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST, 2019, 0:38 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqx_4ePABJo&list= (...)
  • 34 See David Guetta, Dish Dash, Vinylmode, in MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST.

15Many Saudi underground DJs, today embrace the state’s reform program and the vast stages, which it offers them. In an interview in 2018 (that is even before the 2019 MDL Beast festival), DJ and producer Desertfish (Nāsir al‑Shamīmrī) compared the developments in Saudi Arabia with Germany, “what’s happening is crazy to us… Jeddah feels like Berlin after the fall of the wall.”29 Upon the opening of the 2019 MDL Beast festival, Cosmicat — hailed by authorities as “the first female Saudi DJ”30 — expressed her excitement about the state initiative saying, “we have a lot of artists here in Saudi Arabia. Giving them this platform to show to the world what Saudis are capable of, is everything.”31 DJ Baloo described the festival as “kind of our Woodstock”32, “it’s a fresh take on what we are as Saudis.”33 Numerous DJs at the festival, Saudis and non-Saudis alike, stressed a feeling of “writing history.”’34

  • 35 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.
  • 36 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.
  • 37 Anonymous interview, Jeddah 2020.
  • 38 Anonymous interview, Jeddah 2020.

16On the other end, I found former EDM enthusiasts outside of the spotlight often critical of today’s mass parties. In 2020, when I interviewed one of the hosts who had invited me to EDM parties in 2009/10, he stressed to my surprise that he would not go to state-sponsored EDM festivals. He added: “this has nothing to do with our parties of the old days. You know we’ve been everywhere. I can go to Dubai, I can go to Beirut. It’s not the same. The crowds who attend these [state-sponsored EDM] parties don’t know how to party; they have not seen something like this before and so they don’t know how to behave.”35 Similarly, others who used to join Jeddah’s underground parties also took a critical stance during conversations in early 2020 and distanced themselves from these “new crowds,” with statements like: “they are like animals,”36 “they are not civilized,”37 “they go crazy.”38

17This raises the question, who are the festival goers today, who are ‘they,’ who are the ‘new crowds’? Today, anybody with a concert ticket — male or female — can attend an EDM party in Saudi Arabia. However, most of the festival goers tend to be young, male Saudis. For the Saudi context, it is remarkable that Saudi male youth can enter venues, like the MDL Beast, unaccompanied. Until the lifting of regulations in 2019, public space in Saudi Arabia was largely gender segregated. It was marked either as “males-only” or “family.” Family spaces were accessible to females; males could only access these spaces if they accompanied female family relatives. In the past, many entertainment venues, like malls, theme parks or the heritage festival Janadriyah were marked as ‘family’ spaces, thus effectively excluding male youth on most days. The lifting of regulations that segregated public space in 2019, together with stricter social control on the lives of women, has contributed towards rendering today’s EDM audiences largely male. The new composition of party people, which changed dramatically from mixed events towards a strong male dominance, has changed the gender dynamics on site.

  • 39 Private chat at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, October 2020.

18However, the criticism of “the new masses” and their comportment is also a way of reinforcing class boundaries. A critical observer from Jeddah suggested in a discussion of the transformation of the EDM scene, “I think Saudi elites are scouting for new spaces —I’d argue that they’re looking exactly the other way of the ‘global.’”39 Ironically, by opening EDM to the wide public, state initiatives like MDL Beast have not made the EDM scene more egalitarian. Instead, by opening a privileged practice of elite circles to Saudi youth at large, the new arts and entertainment venues like MDL Beast and Qiddiya shed light — indeed highlight — on the drastic wealth disparity that is a characteristic of contemporary Saudi society.

  • 40 MDL Beast website, “MDL Beast Tickets,” https://mdlbeast.com/ticket-package/ (accessed January 21, (...)
  • 41 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.
  • 42 Thebault and Mettler, “Instagram Influencers Partied at a Saudi Music Festival – but No One Mention (...)

19The steep social segmentation is not only manifest but built into the new spaces of entertainment in Saudi Arabia. EDM venues, like the MDL Beast festival or Qiddiya, are highly regulated spaces, although neither civil nor religious police enter the venues. Instead, private security guards (al‑amn) together with young male and female Saudis in bright yellow and orange vests with the bilingual imprint “usher/ munaẓim”, hired by the event organizers, guide and reprimand the visitors. Through event ticketing, EDM audiences are segregated along lines of social class belonging. Tickets for the MDL Beast festival in December 2019 were sold at different tiers: Beaster, Platinum, VIB (“Very Important Beast”), and the “Beast Box.”40 ‘VIB’ status opened the exclusionary space of a VIP area, for a hefty price of SR 4,750/ SR 11,400 (USD 1,260/ USD 3,040). The price for the “Beast Box, the most exclusive offering at MDL Beast” was not to be found on the event advertisement and the MDL Beast website. Benefits for this category included a private terrace, a private butler, “a team of waiters” and special menus on sight. However, what counted more according to one of my interviewees with ‘VIB’ status, was the tolerant attitude towards alcohol and drugs in the VIP-spaces as well as “being close to the top models,”41 social media and fashion stars from around the globe, who were brought in by the event organizers.42 The majority audience on Beaster tickets could notice the VIP area only from a distance or from social media footage, both of which contributed to an exaggerated narrative and the exclusive aura of those who could afford the special status.

  • 43 Coachella festival tickets started at USD 429 for a three-day pass, the day-pass at Tomorrowland st (...)
  • 44 MDL Beast Media House, “MDL Beast Festival - The Saudi Spectacular Sees International and National (...)

20A major reason for the large turnout at the MDL Beast festival in 2019 was the — for Saudi standards — relatively low ticket price of the Beaster ticket. The majority of the audience joined the MDL Beast festival on Beaster tickets, which were sold for a moderate SR 150 (USD 40) for the one day-pass (SR 300 for the three-day pass). In global comparison, the Beaster ticket price was remarkably low, far lower than tickets for Coachella and Tomorrowland,43 two mainstream EDM festivals to which the organizers and DJs in Saudi Arabia repeatedly drew parallels. Given the void of entertainment and its generally high price around Riyadh and other Gulf cities, the low price contributed to the large turnout at the event. Two days into the festival, the organizers announced that it had attracted already “150 thousand eager fans from across the region and further afield”44 — which in turn created even more attraction. A significant factor that further contributed to the success of the festival was the MDL Beast Media Studio House, a high-profile public relations (PR) agency, established to advertise and promote the event — and with it cultural change in Saudi Arabia at large. The transformation of the underground EDM scene in Saudi Arabia into a mass commodity is intimately tied to the reform agenda of the Saudi state.

The Saudi State’s Embrace of Pop Culture

21In the name of the diversification of the Saudi economy, the Saudi state has turned towards pop culture. In April 2016, Muhammad bin Salman announced the country’s new socio-economic direction, Vision 2030. While Vision 2030 has been staged as an economic long-term strategy meant to wean the nation off its dependence on oil and to combat rising unemployment, the strategy implicitly marks the beginning of drastic social and moral reform. In the name of the economy, the state has heralded a post-Wahhabi era, in which Islam is relegated to a “way of life” (manhaj ḥayāt) and a source of values, above all “hard-work, dedication, and excellence.”45 In the political narrative, entertainment functions as a marker of religious reform.46 The promise of nationalism assumes the dominant ideology of the Saudi state.47 The state’s reform agenda fosters an understanding of cultural production as service for the national economy. In the political ideology of the state, cultural production has become a commodity which stimulates the domestic economy and, in the long run, attracts tourism — another cornerstone of Vision 2030.

22In the shadow of Vision 2030, pop culture has become the domain of state authorities. The state’s encroachment has restructured the sphere of arts and culture in the widest sense. While the majority of Saudi Arabia’s veteran underground DJs come from the Hijaz, the country’s Western region, and the EDM scene used to be most vivid in Jeddah, today EDM festivals happen around Riyadh. The center of cultural production has shifted towards the kingdom’s capital, the seat of the royal family and the center of political power. One month after the announcement of Vision 2030, in May 2016, one of the first concrete measures to implement Vision 2030 was to establish a General Entertainment Authority (GEA) tasked with expanding the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia. In May 2018, a “Quality of Life Program” was launched as one of the ‘vision realization programs,’ with a budget of USD 35 billion, above all in charge of organizing heavily subsidized sports and cultural activities. In June 2018, a Ministry of Culture was established under the aegis of Prince Badr bin Farḥān Al Saʿūd, known as a close ally of the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

  • 48 Boker, 2019, p. 653–73.
  • 49 Al‑Atawneh, 2010, p. 111.
  • 50 The Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “2.5 Million Visitors Have Attended Al‑Janadriyah Festi (...)
  • 51 Rodolf and Estimo Jr., “Janadriyah Festival Winds up with 6.8 Million Visitors,” Arab News, Februar (...)

23One of the first prominent victims of the restructuring of the field of arts and culture has been the Saudi heritage festival Janadriyah [mihrajān al‑Janādiriyya]. The festival can be seen as an early attempt to write unity into the nation through arts.48 Since 1985, this annual folklore-oriented festival had been organized under the aegis of the National Guard (al‑Ḥaras al‑Waṭanī) to celebrate the diversity of Saudi Arabia through a display of its musical, artistic and other cultural traditions. In 2015, the festival was cancelled for the first time in its history, upon the death of King ‘Abdallah, who had been commander of the National Guard since 1962. The powerful patron of the festival surely contributed towards the “tacit consent,”49 which the festival received from the religious establishment, despite their general condemnation of festivals and music. Every year, the cheap ticket price of around SR 6 for a day ticket attracted thousands of Saudis from all over the country. In 2011, official statements suggested that 2.5 million visitors attended the festival, with a new record of 1.3 million visitors on a single day.50 This number rose to 6.8 million visitors over 18 festival days in 2017.51

  • 52 This was an impression that I gained in 2013, after spending several days at the Janadriyah festiva (...)
  • 53 Saudi Gazette, “Janadriyah Festival Set for November 2020, to Coincide with G20 Summit,” October 3, (...)

24In an interview in January 2020, a Saudi, hired by an international consultancy that worked for the Ministry of Culture, cynically suggested that the folkloristic ambiance together with the popular (shaʿbī) crowds at the Janadriyah were no longer deemed “representative” of the new image of the nation, which the new authorities endeavored to promote. The Janadriyah festival was especially popular among families, with children crowding the vast outdoor space (1,5 sq km) deep into the night, and young male Saudis from poorer socio-economic backgrounds, who seized the space to meet, watch the crowds, smuggle in alcohol, and avoid prayer times.52 In 2018, the timing of the two-week festival was shifted from winter (some time between December to March) to October, a less pleasant season in terms of weather, in order to free up the pleasant winter period for “more prestigious” events, like the Riyadh Season. In July 2019, the National Guard was stripped of its authority over the Janadriyah festival, which was transferred to the Ministry of Culture. A spokesperson of the ministry suggested that “this is part of a three-year strategic plan to improve the festival so as to ensure that it appears in a manner appropriate to the elevated status of the Kingdom.”53

  • 54 General Entertainment Authority, “Riyadh Season Hosts MDL Beast Festival 200 000 People to Attend t (...)
  • 55 MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST.
  • 56 MDLBEAST, 0:26 min.
  • 57 Demerdash, 2017. Cooptation of the arts accelerated in recent years through the monopoly of MiSK, t (...)
  • 58 “Organizer Q&A.”

25Without being mentioned on event websites and advertisement, today the new state agencies are behind numerous local, seemingly bottom-up and underground cultural initiatives. An official press release in early December 2019, clarified that the General Entertainment Authority organized the MDL Beast festival as part of the ongoing Riyadh Season,54 an element which was later missing from the representation of the festival. Instead, the “MDL Beast” is staged as an initiative in and of itself. A closer dig into the extensive MDL Beast online material suggests that the 2019 festival team was largely composed by expatriate workers, chaired by the General Entertainment Authority with Turkī bin ʿAbd al‑Muḥsin Āl al‑Shaykh: John Rash (Creative Director of the Soundstorm festival, an American with extensive experience in festival organization), Bryony Bolton (UK, MDL Beast Brand Director), and Dickie Chaytor (UK, MDL Beast Business Director).55 Saudis among the festival team included Basma al‑Kharijī (Food & Beverage Consultant), and DJs and producers Baloo and Vinylmode (the latter from Jeddah), though in less clear roles. In 2019, Baloo describes “the day, I received the MDL Beast call, it was a concept, it was an idea, and the idea was to develop a three-day music festival.”56 This is a pattern that several artists in the field of cinema, contemporary art and music described in conversations to me, namely that state agencies like the Ministry of Culture and the General Entertainment Authority pick particular, prominent local artists, “call them and invite them to take the next plane,” in order to participate in a government project, an “offer that nobody can turn down, even if they would want to.” There is a lively local debate among artists in contemporary Jeddah in how far their participation in state-sponsored projects equals their cooptation and loss of autonomy, and about the consequences for not joining in state projects.57 Since 2020, DJ Baloo calls himself Creative Director of the MDL Beast.58

  • 59 Due to the covid-19 pandemic, these were largely turned into online events during summer 2020, see (...)

26In other words, in Saudi Arabia today, it is ironically state-controlled agencies that promote local, alternative artists and underground youth culture within mainstream environments. Within months, MDL Beast has become a national radio station (“MDL Beast Frequencies”) and a platform for local EDM events (“Freqways”).59 It comes as no surprise that the MDL Beast celebrated the Saudi national day in 2020, with local artists releasing new records on September 23rd, thus further conflating art and youth culture with the image of the nation.

27In the name of the diversification of the economy, two months after the announcement of Vision 2030 in June 2016, Muhammad bin Salman launched Qiddiya: the largest entertainment city in the world, to be built 40 kilometers outside of Riyadh. Qiddiya is intimately tied to Vision 2030. In the official rhetoric:

28“Vision 2030 sets the course for the Kingdom’s strategic, economic and social transformation. Qiddiya delivers several core tenets of Vision 2030. Qiddiya is an important part of the changes that are currently happening in Saudi Arabia. It is a catalyst for national transformation, creating a richer life for Saudi citizens while spurring innovation in the creative, hospitality and entertainment sectors.”60

  • 61 Aly, 2019, p. 99–109; Assaf and Montagne, 2019.
  • 62 Qiddiya website, “Appreciate,” https://qiddiya.com/en/discover/appreciate/ (accessed October 29, 20 (...)
  • 63 Kalin, “Saudi Crown Prince Barrels Ahead With Big Projects to Boost Economy,” Wall Street Journal, (...)

29Qiddiya is in many ways a mega project like other mega projects, announced in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in recent years, which have been instrumental in conveying and rebranding the image of the region.61 Through Qiddiya, the Saudi state projects a specific image of Saudi arts and entertainment, which feeds into the new nationalist discourse. The need “to show to the world” nurtures the new nationalist discourse, as well as an emphasis on “firsts”: the “first” female Saudi DJ, the “first” global EDM festival in the Middle East; and on superlatives: the “largest” EDM festival in the Middle East, the “largest” purpose-built stage in the world, as Qiddiya’s theme park will become the largest Six Flags park with the “fastest” scooter in the world, the “highest” rollercoaster ever built, etc. To a certain degree, this discourse also reflects a dimension of competition with Dubai (and the Emirates at large) and the headlines of their spectacular mega projects in the field of arts, entertainment and tourism. Qiddiya’s website features music festivals and EDM as part of its “arts & culture” rubric.62 This embrace of a music festival culture — which is a far cry from previous official condemnations of music and festivals in general — firmly represents the will of the new ruling elite. Qiddiya is governed by a non-elected board of directors, headed by the crown prince, the minister of culture and the head of the General Entertainment Authority. It is developed by the Qiddiya Investment Company, which is fully owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. The giga project is scheduled to open its gates in 2023 and since February 2020 — despite the Covid-19 pandemic, a historically low oil price and an economic recession — the Saudi government awarded more than USD 260 million in contracts to begin the earthworks on the construction site.63 To promote the project, and with that Saudi arts, several events have been organized on the construction site of Qiddiya since the launch of the project.

  • 64 Arab News, “SAMF Bans Saudi Rally Drivers over Coffee Stunt,” January 20, 2020, https://www.arabnew (...)
  • 65 See Menoret and al-Otaibi, 2010, p. 77–94.

30In January 2020, I attended an EDM festival, which celebrated the end of the Dakar motor rally on the construction site of Qiddiya. The 2020 Dakar motor race toured Saudi Arabia and the Middle East “for the first time” in its history. Geared towards attracting international attention, the Saudi government signed a five-year deal for hosting the legendary rally, which effectively showcases the vast and unique landscape of the Arabian Peninsula. Less noticed, a Saudi team was banned from the rally, after a coffee stunt: the co-driver poured the driver coffee from a traditional Arabic coffee pot while racing towards NEOM. A video of the scene went viral in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, however, judged that the “drivers’ behavior was unacceptable and reckless” and that “it was an insult to the reputation of Saudi Arabia.”64 No doubt that this particular car race put the drivers’ lives at risk; two drivers died following accidents during the 2020 Dakar rally. However, I would argue that the reason behind the Saudi drivers’ official condemnation, above all, reflects the online life of their clip. Their car stunt projected an image of both recklessness and tradition, which hints at illegal and deviant local forms of car entertainment and skidding.65 In the logic of the state, the Dakar Rally and Qiddiya serve to project an image meant to celebrate “the nation’s youth”, its “future”, “energy”, “creativity”, “talent”, and “innovation” (all frequent buzz words in the official rhetoric), with little tolerance for the youth’s struggles, defects, and deviances. However, the coffee stunt was not the only deviation from official rhetoric...

EDM Parties as Spaces of Contestation and Deviance

31What happens when a mass of youth, largely left to themselves, is given permission to party all night long? EDM venues in Saudi Arabia are highly regulated spaces, firmly situated under the gaze of the state — and yet, they are also youth gatherings, where new sociabilities are formed, rules of social conduct dismissed and mainstream norms contested. Music festivals, concerts, and entertainment are intimately entwined with a number of notions that are highly contested in Saudi Arabia and fall under the umbrella of “public morality”: questions of gender-mixing (ikhtilāṭ) and sexuality, conceptions of lifestyle and cultural authenticity, drugs and substance abuse.

  • 66 Le Renard, 2014, p. 132–33.
  • 67 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.

32EDM festivals highlight the reconfiguration of moral norms and practices under way in Saudi Arabia. This is most visible with regard to gender norms and practices. At the MDL Beast festival in December 2019, many Saudi women did not cover their hair, and if they wore ʿabāya, the characteristic coat-like garment of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, it often served as stylish accessory. Other women, instead of ʿabāya, wore a farwa (traditionally a warm fur coat, worn by Bedouin men, which has become a fashion item among urban fashionistas) with classic black ear masks, or traded the ʿabāya for a full face cover. At the Dakar rally festival, I spoke with several Saudi women, who attended the festival “alone” (their driver was waiting outside) and posted live about the show to their friends and family. Some young couples felt free to dance intimately or stood arm-in-arm watching the show (him “protecting her” from the crowd). What the young Saudis who took me to the event found most provocative, however, were groups of male youth who walked around hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm. While this in itself is rather common around the Middle East and Saudi Arabia, these young Saudi men wore styles that reminded us of the outfit of American-Egyptian actor Rami Malek playing Freddy Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), a hit-movie around the Middle East: the iconic white, fine rib, ‘wifebeater’ shirt with tight blue jeans, black leather belt, and white sneakers. The provocative dress, together with the self-confident way these youngsters were walking around, resonated with the public display, self-stylization and self-representation that Amélie Le Renard observed in Riyadh’s female publics a decade earlier.66 According to my companion, however, who prides himself to be the only Saudi male fashion blogger on Instagram from Qassim, the youth that we observed were “definitely gay, and not just wearing styles.”67

  • 68 See Kechichian, 1986, p. 53–71; and for a re-reading of the events, Hegghammer and Lacroix, 2007, p (...)
  • 69 My emphasis, Al Arabiya English, “Mohammed Bin Salman: On Saudi Arabia before 1979” (CBS, 2018), ht (...)
  • 70 On past and present experience with film and cinema in Saudi Arabia, see Freitag, 2022 (forthcoming (...)
  • 71 Although in the past, few cultural works openly addressed the 1979 events, their shadow hang over a (...)

33Until 2016, public morality in Saudi Arabia was largely the terrain of the religious establishment, the moral guardian of the nation, who kept a rigid patriarchal fist on Saudi women but also on what these elder men deemed acceptable youth practices. Their monopoly on public morality was reinforced following the 1979 catastrophe in Mecca, when a group of Muslim radicals seized the Grand Mosque and questioned the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers by accusing them of moral corruption.68 In the wake of the crisis, the political rulers relied on the religious establishment to restore their Islamic legitimacy. For decades, the 1979 events were a taboo in Saudi Arabia, an event that symbolized the failure of the royal family to fulfill its role as the protector of the holy shrines (khādim al‑ḥaramayn). In an attempt to rewrite the political history of the country, today’s rulers use the 1979 narrative as a point of departure to explain where things went wrong. In a widely-resonating interview given to the US-produced “CBS 60 minutes,” Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman stressed that “the real Saudi Arabia” was the Saudi Arabia of the 1970 and 1960, that before 1979, when everyone was living “a very normal life like the rest of the Gulf countries,” in his words, “we [Saudis] were just normal people, developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”69 Today, the 1979 narrative is sanctioned and instrumentalized to justify the opening of the social sphere (infitāḥ) and the reconfiguration of moral norms. In fact, following the logic of the 1979-as-rupture narrative, the opening of the social sphere is staged as a “re-”opening and the restoration of authentic Saudi society. The narrative prominently underlies the launch of the cinema industry, since the opening of cinemas in Riyadh in 2018.70 The 1979 narrative has become part of celebrated cultural productions, from Rajā’ ʿᾹlam’s novel Sarāb (2018) to Sulṭān bin Fahad’s art exhibition The Red Palace (2019), and the Ramadan hit series al‑ʿᾹṣūf (MBC 2019).71

  • 72 Saudi Press Agency, “Majlis al‑wuzarāʾ yuwāfiq ʿalā tanẓīm al‑riʾāsa al‑ʿāmma li-Hayʾat al‑amr bi-l (...)
  • 73 Mecca Newspaper, “Wizārat al‑dākhiliyya tuṣdir ḍawābiṭ taṭbīq lāʾiḥat al‑dhawq al‑ʿāmm,” September  (...)
  • 74 AFP, “Saudi Arabia Arrests Hundreds for ‘Wearing Inappropriate Clothes’, ‘Indecency,’” December 30, (...)

34In the wake of Vision 2030, the Saudi government has effectively replaced the prerogative of the religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ) over public morality with the right of the political rulers (umarāʾ), those at the center of political power and close to the royal court, to regulate public behavior. In April 2016, the council of ministers reined the powers of the religious police, thus effectively removing the religious establishment’s authority over public conduct. Members of the committee may no longer “stop persons, seize them, chase them, request their documents, verify their identities, or follow them up,” if they deem their conduct in violation with Islamic laws; instead, the Hay’a must report violations to the civil police or the General Administration of drug Control.72 To the surprise of many Saudis, these policy changes were followed by the immediate disappearance of religious police from the streets of Riyadh. In January 2020, numerous interviewees pointed out that the religious police was no longer seen in public venues in and around Riyadh. The vacuum of moral policing has raised a number of questions. Who decides today what is “appropriate” with regard to practices, such as dancing, cheering and singing, or dress code and the comportment between the sexes? In May 2018, the shoura council and cabinet approved regulations criminalizing sexual harassment and, in September 2020, added a defamation penalty, the “naming and shaming” of harassers. In September 2019, the government further passed a “Public Decency Law” to enforce social order. In Arabic, this law is called “lāʾiḥat al‑dhawq al‑ʿāmm,” which literally translates to “public taste regulation,” and lists 19 restrictions to conduct, ranging from sexual offense to wearing inappropriate clothing, skipping queues, using laser lights, and photographing people without their consent.73 The loose formulation of criminal delicts, however, allows for highly subjective interpretation and possibly instrumentalization of the law. Following the MDL Beast festival in 2019 and the complaints of numerous women on social media, the police of Riyadh announced the arrest of 88 people in various sexual harassment cases. However, the police also arrested 120 men and women “for offending public morals, including wearing ‘inappropriate cloths.’”74

35So far, however, state authorities have not intervened at or stopped music festivals, because of their high value for rebranding the image of the nation. The state appears to be facing a dilemma when it comes to regulating music festivals. EDM festivals are difficult to control because they thrive on the idea of letting go, letting loose, and to forget social realities. By nature, EDM festivals invite disorder and contestation. After all, the new cultural and entertainment spaces are situated on the fringes of Riyadh, far away from the gaze of family, neighbors, and a sense of “what might the others think.”

36This dilemma makes EDM festivals relatively free spaces where Saudi youth can challenge mainstream norms and violate rules of conduct, with little risk or cost involved. The 2019 MDL Beast festival, for instance, was overshadowed by mass sexual harassment. The 2020 Dakar-Qiddiya festival saw violent mob action and vandalism. Following the award ceremony of the Dakar rally, throughout the first concert, I observed how crowds of young Saudi men tried to enter the exclusive front space (VIP) in order to be closer to the DJ on stage. The angry mob pushed violently and boys were throwing themselves at the guards, who worked hard to keep the entrance closed for VIP ticket holders. The guards — big and tall muscled white men, hired for the event — were physically pushing back and shouting in English at the crowd. The young people who tried to force their way into the VIP space seemed in a state of frenzy fueled by the loud drum beat of the music. While such scenes are relatively common at concerts around the world, the outward disrespect towards the guards is remarkable in the Saudi context. During the third concert, around midnight, young men started throwing water bottles at each other. What started as fun soon turned violent when individuals among the audiences started throwing bottles far into the dancing crowd. Young men all over the audience took their bottles, or those they had been showered with, to throw them in turn toward the audience. For about an hour, probably hundreds of bottles flew over and on the audience, randomly hitting dancers. The event organizers eventually stopped distributing water bottles among the dancing audience (food trucks were still selling drinks) but the concert continued in spite of the vandalizing crowd.

37Another way the public challenged the dominant moral standard in Saudi Arabia was through the celebration of provocative lyrics. When American rapper Wiz Khalifa performed the song “Young, Wild and Free”, the audience joined in the refrain with such a loud voice that the performance on stage was muted and hundreds of young Saudi men shouted out loud:

  • 75 Captured by Zebron Zee, Wiz Khalifa In Qiddiya Riyadh Saudi Arabia Dakar Rally 17 January 2020, 202 (...)

“So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed?
We’re just havin’ fun, we don’t care who sees.
That’s how it’s supposed to be, livin’ young and wild and free.”75

38From the outset, many festival goers at the Dakar and MDL Beast festival were hiding their faces, thus hiding their identities. Men used the shimāgh to veil their faces or face masks — from raver masks (so-called burner gear and bandanas), to masks made from cardboard or ski goggles. These face covers were not necessarily intended to protect oneself from possible state intervention: I would assume that they were first and foremost a reaction to the pervasive filming and photographing of the festival goers. Many young men and women were dancing with their smartphones in their hands, taking selfies but also pictures of the crowds without usually asking permission, a practice unimaginable a decade earlier in Saudi Arabia.

  • 76 I made several short films, documenting the flying bottles, with my smartphone and took pictures of (...)
  • 77 Benner et al., “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October (...)

39Given this extensive on-site digital archiving of events, it is remarkable that about six months after these dance festivals, when I prepared a talk on the subject, I could not find any footage documenting the deviances which I had witnessed and filmed while conducting an online search.76 On YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, I could not find any images of flying bottles, complaints about being hit by a bottle, or other forms of vandalism and disrespect. Instead, searching online for images of Qiddiya or MDL Beast only leads to social media reports replete with positive reviews, excited festival goers, glamorous and joyful accounts. Without denying the authenticity of these images, they do raise a question: to which extent is the “clean image” of music parties in Saudi Arabia today the result of a concerted PR strategy of the state, and its systematic manipulation of online content? We are only starting to understand that in the illiberal environments of the Arab states of the Gulf, social media has become a battleground for systematic state campaigns, cyber security, manipulation, and nation branding.77

  • 78 Bayat, chapter 7, p. 137–160.

40What is behind the mob action and vandalism that I noticed at EDM festivals in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and 2020? Is it a brutish form of civil disobedience or just group frenzy and youth rebellion? Are these “rebels without a cause” or merely youth who let loose and break out from the tight context of family and social control that is characteristic of Saudi society? Bayat’s work highlights the significance of fun in the repressive environment of the contemporary Middle East. His work urges us to consider the politics of fun as an important form of “nonmovement”.78 In his words,

  • 79 Bayat, p. ix.

“the vehicles through which ordinary people change their societies are not simply audible mass protests or revolutions, even though they represent an aspect of popular mobilization; rather, people resort more widely to what I will elaborate as ‘nonmovements’ — the collective endeavors of millions of noncollective actors.”79

41In the context of an increasingly authoritarian Middle East, Bayat suggests that fun allows individuals to

  • 80 Bayat, p. 138.
  • 81 Bayat, p. 154.

“break free temporarily from the disciplined constraints of daily life, normative obligations and organized power,”80 “fun has the potential to defy not only hierarchy and differentiation but any kind of structure… it is partially this anti-structure disposition… it disturbs the sense and security of order, stability, and tranquility that characterize the conservative image of a sensible world.”81

42Rowdy, ugly, and unruly fun, mob action and the wild crowd at EDM festivals stand in stark contrast to the disciplined and strictly regulated everyday life of so many young Saudi men (and women), where a mere glance at the other sex can lead to serious disciplining action. Rather than fighting and suppressing these unruly fun practices, the new political elites of Saudi Arabia have chosen to absorb them. In the manner of a valve, the Saudi state is institutionalizing, incorporating, and commoditizing fun practices through event spaces and entertainment. The entertainment industry, like MDL Beast, offers a space to Saudi youth where they can let go and defy everyday realities. Yet, I would not readily assume a causal relation between the expansion of the entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia and the appreciation that many young Saudis express towards their new leadership. Does enjoyment imply consent? Is pop culture only true when it resists? On a more theoretical level, this raises the question of how far the new “mass” culture of EDM, which is pushed by state initiative and marketed for profit to a mass public of consumers, still qualifies as “pop culture.”

Conclusion

43By embracing EDM and global pop culture, the Saudi state has mobilized and sanctioned once marginal spaces and thereby set a new moral standard — at least within these distinct spaces. The place of EDM and pop music in Saudi society has changed. Music has moved from the private to the public sphere, and the EDM scene shifted from Jeddah towards the capital, Riyadh. New purpose-built locations on the fringes of the capital, like Qiddiya and the MDL Beast festival site in Banban, contribute to producing and shifting moral registers. From this perspective, public morality emerges as a contested social reality that is neither stable nor necessarily reflective of a broad societal consensus. Instead of understanding public morality as a common denominator or the understanding of the common man (and woman), the drastic changes that we witnessed in recent years through the lens of the Saudi EDM scene suggest that public morality reflects, above all, the understanding of those authorities charged with keeping “moral order.” With pop culture becoming a new facet of urban life in Saudi Arabia, social class differences, status, and stigmatization, disguised as questions of lifestyle, have entered the field of cultural production. Urban lifestyles increasingly mobilize social class differences. This leaves a bitter mark on the emerging festival culture of Saudi Arabia.

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Wakefield, Sarina, “Heritage, Cosmopolitanism and Identity in Abu Dhabi”, Karen Exell and Trinidad Rico (eds), Cultural Heritage in the Arabian Peninsula. Debates, Discourses and Practices, Surrey(UK)/Burlington (US), Ashgate, 2014, p. 99–116.

Zubaida, Sami, “Drink, Meals and Social Boundaries.” Jakob A. Klein & Anne Murcott (eds), Food Consumption in Global Perspective, Basingstoke (UK)/New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, p. 209–23.

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Notes

1 I presented a first version of this paper at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in October 2020, in the panel “Urbanity in Saudi Arabia: New Frontiers in Research.” I thank all panel participants and the audience for their feedback, and thank Ulrike Freitag for encouraging me to look systematically into this topic.

2 MDL Beast Media House, “A 400,000 Strong Crowd Showed up to Marvel at the Record-Breaking Soundstorm that was MDL Beast Festival - Rocking Riyadh over Three Unforgettable Days,” Press Release, December 22, 2019, https://mdlbeast.studiomediahouse.com/en/stories/content-release-december-22nd.

3 Wakefield, 2014; Exell, 2016; Mirgani, 2017; Gray, 2017; Freer and Kherfi, 2020.

4 Historically, the leiwah was a performance and ritual of specific Emirati communities of African origin with songs alluding to slavery. Through a process of institutionalization within state agencies, national day celebrations and heritage festivals, and the decontextualization of the musical content, today the leiwah has come to represent the collective imaginary of the Emirati nation, see Sebiane, 2007 and Sebiane, 2010.

5 See, for example, Khalaf, 2000; Krawietz, 2014.

6 Under King Salman, the Saudi state has involved itself in a number of projects in the domain of the arts and culture. Vision 2030 fuels, for instance, the new national pride about previously neglected archaeological sites, like Al‑Ula and Madain Saleh, with the establishment of “The Royal Commission for Al‑Ula” in 2017.

7 See Menoret, 2014; Thompson, 2019.

8 In this article, I focus only on those audiences who go, or used to go, to EDM parties in Saudi Arabia. Contrary to the official representation of the festivals, we should be careful not to assume that all Saudi youth are in favor of, or even interested in, EDM events. Instead, I suggest that we ask who benefits and has access to these new cultural venues and entertainment spaces and who is excluded from or rejects the events.

9 Pop culture or popular culture is a term that is notoriously hard to define. Attempts to grasp the concept, beyond a definition that merely describes it in opposition to high/ elite or folk culture, struggle with the tension and relationship between mass production/ mass consumption, the people/ the popular, and the authorization/ institutionalization of taste/ status, see Parker, 2011, p. 147–70.

10 Bayat, 2010, p. 146.

11 Vogel, 2003, p. 749–68.

12 Al-Atawneh, 2010, p. 107–13.

13 Ibid., p. 111.

14 Otterbeck, 2012, p. 341–53.

15 Urkevich, 2014 and Urkevich, 2011, p. 401–9; for musical performance as part of alternative healing practices, see Doumato, 2000.

16 “Ministry of Culture to Establish Tariq Abdul Hakim Music Museum,” Saudi Press Agency, August 17, 2020, https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewfullstory.php?lang=en&newsid=2121469.

17 Otterbeck, Mattsson, and Pastene, 2018, p. 267–86.

18 There are different explanations about the meaning of the term kasra, which stems from the Arabic root k-s-r, “to break”, possibly alluding to a vocal battle (to break the opponent singer) or to the broken youth, who consume the broken verses of the kasrāt, see Samin and Menoret, 2013, p. 213–28.

19 The term ṭaggagāt is today considered derogatory by some of the musicians, since it alludes to past slave drummers, who were considered of lower social status and engaged in behavior deemed immoral. See Urkevich, 2014, p. 50–61.

20 Maneval, 2019, p. 82–83.

21 Ibid., p. 78.

22 MDL Beast website, “EDM Story with Saudi Local Talent, B-Roll,” MP4, 2019, https://mdlbeast.studiomediahouse.com/en/content-pool (downloaded October 26, 2020).

23 The complex contemporary situation has become subject of cultural production, as in ʿAbd Allāh Ṣāniʿ, 2005.

24 I noticed, however, that some Saudis do not mind to be seen with a drink at musical events or parties organized by the European consulates in Jeddah.

25 Zubaida, 2014, p. 209–23.

26 Poster and drums can be bought in the MDL Beast online shop, see “Soundstorm 2019,” MDL Beast (blog), https://mdlbeast.com/product-category/soundstorm-2019/ (accessed February 13, 2021); for historical context of ṭīrān and ʿarḍa, see Urkevich, 2014, 76–78, 272, 63–71.

27 Meddeb, Hind. Electro Chaabi. Documentary, Monoduo Films, 2014; Anonymous, 2020.

28 Alameri and Alrushud, “DJ Steve Aoki Spins Mohammed Abdu Remix at MDL Beast for Saudi Fans,” Arab News, December 21, 2019, https://arab.news/pxhr6 .

29 Romdane, “Jeddah’s Underground Techno Scene Is Thriving,” Mille (blog), December 14, 2018, https://www.milleworld.com/desertfish-saudi-dj/.

30 Saeed, “‘I Never Viewed Myself as That’: Why Cosmicat Wants to Stop the Idea She Was Saudi Arabia’s First Female DJ,” The National, June 18, 2020, https://www.thenationalnews.com/arts-culture/music/i-never-viewed-myself-as-that-why-cosmicat-wants-to-stop-the-idea-she-was-saudi-arabia-s-first-female-dj-1.1035036.

31 Around minute 3, in “EDM Story with Saudi Local Talent, B-Roll.”

32 “Organizer Q&A: Baloo (MDLBEAST),” Festivaladvisor, December 16, 2020, https://festivaladvisor.com/articles/festival-organizer-interview-baloo-mdlbeast.

33 MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST, 2019, 0:38 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wqx_4ePABJo&list=PLvD710kkZ9R9sSDaa5NPdNCIrHdI47iLH.

34 See David Guetta, Dish Dash, Vinylmode, in MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST.

35 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.

36 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.

37 Anonymous interview, Jeddah 2020.

38 Anonymous interview, Jeddah 2020.

39 Private chat at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association, October 2020.

40 MDL Beast website, “MDL Beast Tickets,” https://mdlbeast.com/ticket-package/ (accessed January 21, 2020).

41 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.

42 Thebault and Mettler, “Instagram Influencers Partied at a Saudi Music Festival – but No One Mentioned Human Rights,” The Washington Post, December 24, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/12/23/instagram-influencers-partied-saudi-arabian-music-festival-no-one-mentioned-human-rights/.

43 Coachella festival tickets started at USD 429 for a three-day pass, the day-pass at Tomorrowland started at EUR 105 in 2019.

44 MDL Beast Media House, “MDL Beast Festival - The Saudi Spectacular Sees International and National Talent Perform to an Elated Crowd of 150 Thousand Festival Goers,” Press Release, December 21, 2020, https://mdlbeast.studiomediahouse.com/en/stories/content-release-december-21st.

45 Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “Vision 2030,” 2017, 16, https://vision2030.gov.sa/sites/default/files/report/Saudi_Vision2030_EN_2017.pdf.

46 Sinani, 2019.

47 See Alhussein, 2019.

48 Boker, 2019, p. 653–73.

49 Al‑Atawneh, 2010, p. 111.

50 The Embassy of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, “2.5 Million Visitors Have Attended Al‑Janadriyah Festival,” April 11, 2011, https://www.saudiembassy.net/news/25-million-visitors-have-attended-al-janadriyah-festival (accessed November 10, 2020).

51 Rodolf and Estimo Jr., “Janadriyah Festival Winds up with 6.8 Million Visitors,” Arab News, February 20, 2017, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1056901/saudi-arabia.

52 This was an impression that I gained in 2013, after spending several days at the Janadriyah festival.

53 Saudi Gazette, “Janadriyah Festival Set for November 2020, to Coincide with G20 Summit,” October 3, 2019, http://saudigazette.com.sa/article/578932.

54 General Entertainment Authority, “Riyadh Season Hosts MDL Beast Festival 200 000 People to Attend the Middle East Largest Music Festival,” December 12, 2019, https://www.gea.gov.sa/en/news/riyadh-season-hosts-mdl-beast-festival/ (accessed November 13, 2020).

55 MDLBEAST, The Making of MDLBEAST.

56 MDLBEAST, 0:26 min.

57 Demerdash, 2017. Cooptation of the arts accelerated in recent years through the monopoly of MiSK, the foundation of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, but it is not a new practice, see Foley, 2019.

58 “Organizer Q&A.”

59 Due to the covid-19 pandemic, these were largely turned into online events during summer 2020, see MDL Beast website, https://mdlbeast.com/ (accessed October 29, 2020).

60 Qiddiya website, “Discover,” https://qiddiya.com/ (accessed October 29, 2020).

61 Aly, 2019, p. 99–109; Assaf and Montagne, 2019.

62 Qiddiya website, “Appreciate,” https://qiddiya.com/en/discover/appreciate/ (accessed October 29, 2020).

63 Kalin, “Saudi Crown Prince Barrels Ahead With Big Projects to Boost Economy,” Wall Street Journal, August 26, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-crown-prince-barrels-ahead-with-big-projects-to-boost-economy-11598434201.

64 Arab News, “SAMF Bans Saudi Rally Drivers over Coffee Stunt,” January 20, 2020, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1615496/saudi-arabia.

65 See Menoret and al-Otaibi, 2010, p. 77–94.

66 Le Renard, 2014, p. 132–33.

67 Anonymous interview, Riyadh 2020.

68 See Kechichian, 1986, p. 53–71; and for a re-reading of the events, Hegghammer and Lacroix, 2007, p. 103–22.

69 My emphasis, Al Arabiya English, “Mohammed Bin Salman: On Saudi Arabia before 1979” (CBS, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjFbANmdrso.

70 On past and present experience with film and cinema in Saudi Arabia, see Freitag, 2022 (forthcoming).

71 Although in the past, few cultural works openly addressed the 1979 events, their shadow hang over a number of literary works. In Yūsuf al‑Muḥaymīd, Al‑amām lā yaṭīr fī Burayda, Beirut, Al‑Markaz al‑Thaqāfī al‑ʿArabī, 2009, the fact that the protagonist’s father was involved in the attacks limits his life. In Badriyya al‑Bishr, Gharāmiyāt shāriʿ al‑Aʿshā, London, Dār al‑Sāqi, 2013, one of the characters joins the radicals.

72 Saudi Press Agency, “Majlis al‑wuzarāʾ yuwāfiq ʿalā tanẓīm al‑riʾāsa al‑ʿāmma li-Hayʾat al‑amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-l-nahy ʿan al‑munkar, Iḍāfa thāniya wa-akhīra,” April 12, 2016, https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewstory.php?lang=ar&newsid=1488838.

73 Mecca Newspaper, “Wizārat al‑dākhiliyya tuṣdir ḍawābiṭ taṭbīq lāʾiḥat al‑dhawq al‑ʿāmm,” September 28, 2019, https://makkahnewspaper.com/article/1113019/.

74 AFP, “Saudi Arabia Arrests Hundreds for ‘Wearing Inappropriate Clothes’, ‘Indecency,’” December 30, 2019, https://www.nst.com.my/world/world/2019/12/551861/saudi-arabia-arrests-hundreds-wearing-inappropriate-clothes-indecency.

75 Captured by Zebron Zee, Wiz Khalifa In Qiddiya Riyadh Saudi Arabia Dakar Rally 17 January 2020, 2020, 4:20-5:30 min, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wSJ09VXuyI (accessed February 15, 2021).

76 I made several short films, documenting the flying bottles, with my smartphone and took pictures of other smaller deviances.

77 Benner et al., “Saudis’ Image Makers: A Troll Army and a Twitter Insider,” New York Times, October 24, 2018; Jones, 2020, chapter 6, p. 256–328. Also see the article by Frédéric Lagrange in this issue of Arabian Humanities.

78 Bayat, chapter 7, p. 137–160.

79 Bayat, p. ix.

80 Bayat, p. 138.

81 Bayat, p. 154.

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Référence électronique

Nora Derbal, « Electronic Dance Music Festivals in Riyadh: Pop Culture as a Space of Cooptation and Contestation », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 14 | 2020, mis en ligne le 21 février 2021, consulté le 13 avril 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cy/6286 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/cy.6286

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Nora Derbal

The Martin Buber Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences,The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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