Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in CNN’s Meanwhile in the Middle East newsletter, a three-times-a-week look inside the region’s biggest stories. Sign up here.
Electronic music, strobe lights, glittered faces and hundreds of thousands of people in mixed-gender gyrations are all part of a new kind of ritual in Saudi Arabia that didn’t exist just three years ago.
The kingdom’s Soundstorm music festival, which began in 2019, is back again for its fourth year and will start on Thursday.
In just five years since Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on musical events, the kingdom’s concert scene has arguably outshined even that of Dubai, long seen as the Gulf region’s premier entertainment hub.
The country that has been better known as the birthplace of Islam than a rave capital has gone through a tremendous makeover since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) took control of the everyday running of the kingdom in 2017. Soundstorm is an eye-catching symbol of that change.
For three days every winter, hundreds of thousands of people from across Saudi Arabia and the region descend on a desert site outside the capital Riyadh to listen to some of the top Western and Arab acts .
The rave is a manifestation of the ethos behind Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic transformation, according to Anna Jacobs, a senior analyst at the Crisis Group think tank. “(It) is a particularly powerful example because it seeks to bring together young people and women from across Saudi Arabia and the world,” she said.
David Guetta, Post Malone and Bruno Mars are just a few of the stars performing at this year’s event, which prides itself as being “the loudest festival in the region,” aiming to “amplify the unseen” as it supports local and international music in the Middle East. Tickets cost between 149 riyals (around $40) for a single day and 6,699 riyals (around $1,800 ) for a three-day VIP treatment.
The festival reportedly welcomed 730,000 partygoers last year. By contrast, Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival, considered North America’s biggest dance music festival, had an attendance of over 400,000 this year.
An event like Soundstorm was inconceivable in the country just six years ago, when the notorious religious police would roam the streets and censure Saudis for mixing with the opposite sex or flouting social norms. But it is now part of a liberalization initiative spearheaded by MBS, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. It accompanies a series of steps to relax social rules, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and reining in the religious police.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia established the General Entertainment Authority in tandem with Vision 2030 – the crown prince’s plan to diversify its economy beyond oil, which accounts for more than half of the government’s revenue. Among its goals was to almost double household spending on cultural and entertainment activities within the kingdom. Riyadh is now seeing more than $64 billion in entertainment investment, reported Arab News, with a significant proportion of that going to the live music industry.
Vision 2030 prides itself on offering “world-class entertainment” and says that it has organized up to 3,800 entertainment events in the country, attended by more than 80 million people.
“The whole principle about allowing festivals is to provide youth with domestic entertainment and local tourism opportunities so they don’t need to travel abroad in search of fun,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi author and analyst.
Some conservatives may find the festival unacceptable, Shihabi said, but given that youth make up the majority of the country’s population, they remain the primary beneficiaries.
Around two-thirds of Saudi Arabia’s population is 34 years old or younger, according to the Saudi General Authority for Statistics. Analysts say it’s the youth that MBS needs to placate, not the conservatives.
Alcohol continues to be banned in the kingdom, as are sexual relations between men, and unmarried couples.
The festival is not, however, without international criticism and accusations of whitewashing the kingdom’s human rights record. Last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that performers should either “speak up” about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations or not attend the festival at all.
“Saudi Arabia has spent billions of dollars hosting massive entertainment and cultural events in a deliberate (attempt) to whitewash the country’s abysmal human rights record and the Soundstorm music festival is no different,” Joey Shea, a researcher at HRW told CNN. “The creation of the country’s local entertainment industry was accompanied by waves of arbitrary arrests of dissidents, activists, human rights defenders and ordinary Saudi citizens.”
Shihabi rejects the argument that the festival whitewashes the country’s rights record, saying that it “has little to do with any global image and is purely focused on servicing local needs.”
Mdlbeast, the organizers of Soundstorm, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Some however argue that opening up countries to international norms and values can allow for better discussion on human rights shortcomings.
“I think there is a way for these major international events – whether that be the World Cup in Qatar or music festivals in Saudi Arabia – to help open public discourse to critical debate,” said Jacobs.
“They can help cultivate healthy criticism and discussion around human rights issues in the region,” she added, “and as the Gulf continues to solidify its position as the region’s center of gravity, I think this is what we will see.”
The families of Iran’s World Cup football team had been threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players failed to “behave” ahead of the match against the United States on Tuesday, a source involved in the security of the games said.
Following the refusal of Iranian players to sing the nation’s national anthem in their opening match against England on November 21, the source said that the players were called to a meeting with members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The source said that they were told that their families would face “violence and torture” if they did not sing the national anthem or if they joined any political protest against the Tehran regime.
Here’s the latest:
- The Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization said on Tuesday that at least 448 people have been killed in the unrest surrounding the protests. CNN cannot independently verify the death toll.
- Members of the activist art group Pussy Riot wore shirts in support of Iranian protesters at Tuesday’s World Cup game between Iran and the United States in Doha.
- Two Iranian footballers were freed from detention on Tuesday, according to reports. Voria Ghafouri, who was facing charges of incitement against the regime, was released on bail, reported Iranian judiciary news site Mizan News. And a former member of Iran’s national team, Parviz Boroumand, who was arrested during protests in Tehran, was also released, according to state news agency IRNA.
- French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna announced Monday that a third tranche of European Union sanctions against Iran is “being prepared” over the ongoing repression of protests.
Qatar to send 2 million tons of LNG to Germany in new energy deal
QatarEnergy signed a deal on Tuesday that will allow Germany to receive flows of Qatari liquefied natural gas (LNG) over a period of at least 15 years, Qatar’s state news agency QNA said. The deal is the first of its kind to Europe from the expansion project of Qatar’s North Field, the world’s biggest gas field, and is meant to make up for some of the shortage triggered by Russian supply cuts.
- Background: Until the Ukraine war, Germany was heavily reliant on Russian gas. Talks with Qatar have been in the works for months, as Germany and other European countries try to find alternative energy sources as the market tightens following sanctions on Russian supplies. The contract provides Germany with two million tons of LNG annually and the first shipment is due in 2026.
- Why it matters: Tensions were high this month as Germany ramped up its criticism of Qatar ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, questioning its human rights record and later opposing the Gulf country’s ban on the rainbow-colored armband. Europe’s biggest economy has been running short on natural gas, with German economy minister Robert Habeck previously saying that rationing could not be ruled out ahead of the coming winter.
US State Department approves potential anti-drone system sale to Qatar for $1 billion
The US State Department has approved the potential sale of an anti-drone system to Qatar in a deal valued at $1 billion, Reuters cited the Pentagon as saying on Tuesday. The principal contractors will be Raytheon Technologies and Northrop Grumman Corp, the Pentagon said.
- Background: The potential sale approval comes after US President Joe Biden earlier this year designated Qatar as a major non-NATO ally of the US, granting special status to a key friend in a turbulent region. Separately, Qatar has also played a role in the Iran nuclear talks and in relations with Afghanistan, where Washington’s interests were represented by the small Gulf country.
- Why it matters: The approval comes as the use of drones rises in Middle East warfare. In 2019, a drone attack blamed on Iran knocked off half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. Iran, which has friendly relations with Doha, has also been accused by the US of supplying Russia with drones in its war with Ukraine. The Pentagon said the proposed sale will improve Qatar’s capability to meet threats by providing electronic and kinetic defeat capabilities against drones.
US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fear Turkish ground invasion could start in a week
The head of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on Tuesday said a Turkish ground invasion could take place in a matter of days if Turkey does not see forceful opposition to a military incursion from countries such as the US and Russia.
- Background: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a recent series of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Syria, and has warned that a ground operation will soon follow. The operation is meant to target Kurdish groups that Turkey believes were behind a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul earlier this month.
- Why it matters: The SDF’s backbone is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which Turkey considers a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and seeks to eliminate. But the group has been instrumental in the fight against ISIS since 2014 and has warned that a Turkish assault will complicate the fight against the militants. It is unclear if the US will heed its calls to restrain Turkey. The US has reduced the number of patrols with SDF ahead of a possible incursion.
Qatar’s World Cup chief Hassan Al-Thawadi said that between 400 and 500 migrant workers have died as a result of work done on projects connected to the tournament – a greater figure than Qatari officials have cited previously.
In an interview with Piers Morgan which aired on TalkTV on Monday, Al-Thawadi was asked about the number of migrant workers fatalities due to construction for the World Cup and said: “The estimate is around 400, between 400 and 500.
“I don’t have the exact number, that’s something that’s been discussed. One death is too many, it’s as simple as that.”
In November 2022, a government official told CNN there had been three work-related deaths on World Cup stadiums and 37 non-work-related deaths.
- The US men’s team advanced to the knockout stage with a hard-fought victory over Iran. US President Joe Biden celebrated the win by saying, “They did it. God love ‘em” and not all Iranians were lamenting their team’s loss.
- The match between Portugal and Uruguay was briefly interrupted by a pitch invader waving a rainbow flag on the field at the Lusail Iconic Stadium on Monday.
- US captain Tyler Adams apologized on Monday after being told an Iranian journalist that he had been pronouncing the country’s name incorrectly as “EYE-RAN” instead of “ee-RON.”
Around the region
On Thursday, the UAE is set to become the first Arab country to launch a mission to the moon. The Rashid Rover will begin its trip from Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida where it aims to land on the lunar surface in the coming months.
Beginning construction in 2017, the solar-powered rover has been developed by Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) and is named after the emirate’s late ruler Sheikh Rashid Al Saeed.
The rover will take a low-energy route and is expected to land on the lunar surface in March 2023. The vehicle will be delivered by the Japanese HAKUTO-R lander and will touch down on the Atlas crater.
It will spend one lunar day (equivalent to 14.75 days Earth time) where it will analyze the plasma of the moon’s surface and conduct experiments on lunar dust. It will then spend another lunar day in which it will attempt to survive the moon’s harsh environment, before decommissioning.
The launch aims to be the first step in the UAE’s greater space prospects. By 2117, the country aims to have a colony built on Mars’s surface. “We are starting small,” Hamad Al Marzooqi, project manager of the Emirates Lunar Mission at the MBRSC, told CNN. “But we hope that this small step will be eventually the starting point to reach our targets.”
The UAE launched a mission to Mars in February last year.
By Ollie Macnaughton