In the heart of Saudi nights

When Reem’s friends open the door of his cafe in Riyadh’s al-Malqa enclave, the young Saudi woman emerges from behind the bar and extends her arms to hug them. Women are like men. “Can we do this in front of a journalist? ask a little. Reem hesitates, then decides: “This is how we greet each other every day, after all! These on-trend musicians love meeting at the counter of this bourgeois-bohemian-looking small business designed and opened by executive Reem in his thirties. Here they can use the tools that stand in every corner. Sometimes they even hold small concerts, where they take turns behind mixing tables arranged in a separate room.

Festival goers attend the “Soundstorm” event organized by MDLBeast on the outskirts of Riyadh on December 16, 2021. photo AFP

“This is a space of peace that we have dreamed of for a long time,” says Talal, the group’s dean. Not because no one had thought of opening it before, but because the authorities would shut it down as soon as it opened and they would see all the signs of moral corruption in it: a mix of genders, uncovered women, and public musical performances. This Saudi DJ, who has been mixing in Saudi Arabia for 10 years, remembers it well in a not too distant time. “One day in 2013 we held an electro party in the desert and we were taken away by the religious police, who shaved our heads. That was how it was back then. You were walking down the street with your head shaved and everyone knew you had been caught by the vice squad. »

But today the kingdom has changed. This religious police, which is the guarantor of a meticulous Islam and very feared in the country, has lost its power in recent years. It is a decision taken by the Saudi authorities, who want to modernize the country, especially by developing the entertainment sector, to diversify their economy, which is overly dependent on oil. In 2016, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country launched a broad reform plan known as Vision 2030. The text prefaces the new history of Saudi Arabia, where culture, entertainment and tourism now occupy a central place. and where the population has new freedoms. Especially to the party.

Reem and his friends play music in their cafe in Riyadh’s al-Malqa residential district. Photograph by Lucile Wassermann

“Great success”

One of the representative places of this new culture is located on the edge of Riyadh, in the middle of the desert sections. It is now a huge square where music festivals are held with the approval of the authorities. At the end of this huge venue, the main stage in the form of a white balloon rising over tens of meters would almost turn your head. On the other side is an arena created using multi-colored containers, reminiscent of the techno atmosphere of Berlin clubs. And between the two is an endless expanse of asphalt where silence seems heavy. It was here last December that 700,000 people paraded in front of 200 artists for four days on the occasion of the Middle East’s largest electro festival “Soundstorm”.

“It was a huge success,” says Nada Alabi, one of the festival’s organizers, who looks like an ant in the middle of this huge playground of Saudi events. Orange-tinted glasses on her nose, hair blowing in the wind, this electronic music fan is part of MDLBeast, the collective behind these extraordinary events that made the country make a huge difference in just a few years. Because the first big public concert in the country was held only in 2017. At that time, only men could participate. And on the sale tickets there is an inscription in large letters: “Dance ban”. Who would have thought that, four years later, such a festival would take place in Riyadh? “It’s true that we wanted to think big, after years of ban and two years of secrecy due to Covid,” explains Nada with a smile. Lasers, giant screens, smoke throwers, acrobatic performances… Everything has been done to compete with the biggest international music festivals. However, with two features: the absence of alcohol, which is prohibited in the kingdom, and the cessation of music during prayer times. The red lines of a kingdom that does not forget that its balance is also due to the satisfaction of the most devout among its population. “You can still call it the cultural revolution, right? ‘ Talal asks, leaning against the bar of Reem’s cafe. His friend nodded, sipping on fresh mango juice. This Saudi woman has had many parties before those authorized by the authorities, but she will always remember her first public concert, which she went to with her brother, organized by MDLBeast in 2019: “I looked at her and said to her: Can you believe what happened? You and me, man and sister, are we dancing techno in Saudi Arabia? Reem paused, looking dazed, his eyes moist. “I still have goosebumps!” »

terrible pressure

But the “underground” evenings did not disappear in the kingdom. Because for the biggest revelers, the restrictions imposed by the authorities spoil their sense of party. “We want alcohol and drugs,” 37-year-old Saudi Majid boasts. Despite the new possibilities, the restaurateur of the profession continues to organize parties that are considered illegal in the country. He rents villas outside Riyadh for a night where anything is allowed. “A lot of people are doing this, reassuring the 30-year-old man, and the authorities know very well what’s going on here. Around the house he rented that evening, the bass of electro music echoes in the dark night of the Saudi countryside. You see, I’m not the only one. »

Majid holds such parties every weekend and describes officials as “more lax” since the religious police were disabled. “No one can take you out of here unless you do this in the center of Riyadh,” he says. “It would be better! About fifteen friends are dancing in front of him, cocktails in his hand. A few meters ahead, the participants are huddled on the sofas and smoke hookahs, while the others are indifferent, consuming acid somewhat intermittently. One of the black market regulars, Majid said, “It is not so easy to find all of them in the country, but with the right contacts. possible,” he admits. It’s the start of a long night that will last until the morning and repeat the following weekend… This carelessness will almost make one forget that the ax is not far away in Saudi Arabia. Social reforms are not synonymous with new political freedoms. Amnesty International’s Lynn Maalouf, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa office, said: “Behind the scenes, the moon At the same time, the most terrible pressure falls on anyone who dares to criticize power.” According to the organization, at least 64 people are still detained in Saudi Arabia simply for expressing their views. And in one day in mid-March, the kingdom executed 81 people, surpassing the total number of executions carried out in just 24 hours in 2021. A reminder that the country has changed, but also for the worse.

When Reem’s friends open the door of his cafe in Riyadh’s Al-Malqa enclave, the young Saudi woman emerges from behind the bar and extends her arms to hug them. Women are like men. “Can we do this in front of a journalist? ask a little. Reem hesitates, then decides: “This is how we greet each other every day…