MDL Beast festival took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in December last year – was the dry festival which hosted worldwide and local DJs a symbol of change?
Sipping my hot chocolate was a far cry from the Vodka Red Bull I’d usually be swigging. December last year saw the introduction of MDL Beast (Middle Beast) – Saudi Arabia’s largest arts and cultural festival – from 4pm to 4am, three days straight and it amazed me how these people were able to party into the early hours of the morning without a drop of alcohol. I’m telling you, these Saudis showed me up as they jumped about, fists pumping in the air, singing the words to every EDM song there is.
Friday night welcomed 90,000 people to the festival grounds – over 200,000 attended across the entire weekend. That’s bigger than Glastonbury. Things definitely got into full swing as Black Coffee and Rick Ross ignited the crowd but Martin Garrix definitely stole the show for me. Come on, the guy is a prodigy and I’m yet to hear a track he’s produced that I don’t like. He killed his set and the Saudi crowd appeared to love every minute of it – well, the group I was pulled into singing and dancing with made it seem so, anyways.
Let me fill you in; the grounds were made up of several stages – just like your standard festival – with the Main Beast (main stage) showcasing international names like David Guetta, Steve Aoki and J Balvin. The Underground Beast stages featured the likes of South Korean artist Peggy Gou and old school American DJ and record producer Danny Tenaglia, while the Saudi Beast stage was the platform for all local DJs to play their tracks. It was inspiring that established names such as DJ Baloo (a Saudi native who has been in the game for the past 22 years) played their sets alongside smaller creatives who have only been in the industry for a year. It’s obvious that this is a dream come true for so many – something they never thought would be possible.
But it’s not all about the DJs. Introducing Arts Beast, an area of the festival which displayed the wacky and wonderful. There were a variety of immersive shows and I found myself immediately bundled into a large, illusion-filled labyrinth that had me thinking I’d walked the whole way round, when I’d barely made a dent in the inflatable maze. An abundance of aerialists, trapeze artists and fireworks shows were scheduled throughout the weekend – as well as the Fuerza Bruta – a bizarre but hypnotising immersive water dance display. I’m not entirely sure what I witnessed but the atmosphere rivalled the main stage’s, making it the highlight of Arts Beast for me.
I had to check myself each time a DJ screamed “Saudi Arabia”; the crowd was constantly electric and even the security team were having a good time. The security I see at gigs in the UK always have an expressionless look on their faces yet, at MDL Best, it was too big a moment for anyone to miss. Looking around the desert landscape, from afar, you could have easily mistaken the festival for Burning Man crossed with Coachella. In the Middle Beast, sorry, East.
Not without controversy, the festival has been received negatively, given the news of the death sentences. But you cannot deny that the festival was still a sign of change – and any kind of change is a small step of progress. You don’t think so? Men and women were dancing and singing together. I can tell your eyebrows are raised but MDL Beast showed the leaps and bounds Saudi Arabia is making. You don’t agree? There are other countries in the Middle East that are yet to hold a festival like this and I’m not holding my breath for one any time soon. For me, that counts as change. It might not be enough for you, it might not be right kind for you but I don’t think it is fair to completely ignore it.