It’s not often that you can say an EDM festival counts as a significant cultural event, but MDL Beast, held across three days in the Saudi Arabian desert this weekend, is the exception.
In a country whose outside reputation is one of traditional values, where public dancing was only recently legalised, the staging of a three-day dance music festival should in some ways come as a surprise and yet, at the same time, no surprise at all.
People have a way of finding fun, no matter the rules, and the introduction of a formalised space in which to do it is simply the next step in Saudi Arabia’s rapidly changing cultural landscape.
Headlined by Tiesto, Steve Aoki and Black Coffee but championing Middle Eastern talent, too (think Amr Diab, Mohammed Hakami, and Omar Basaad) MDL Beast has done what the Middle East does best: looked for the best version of something on the planet and then attempted to up the ante with a hefty injection of cash.
In this case the template was America’s giant, candy-coloured, Comic Sans love letter to house music (or EDM), Tomorrowland and its ilk.
These temples of dance are constructed on an industrial scale, huge stages popping up overnight, dedicated to the 4:4 beat.
It took just three months to turn an enormous patch of sand 40 minutes outside of Riyadh into MDL Beast’s version of that. The ambition and scale of it boggles the mind: 5 stages, countless installations, cabins, pop-up stores, performance spaces and restaurants. The organisers, having worked almost non-stop for the last 90 days, seemed rightly bewildered by what they had managed to accomplish. A stellar line up, enormous crowds and a functioning infrastructure, it was a thing to behold.
Build it and they will come, goes the saying, and come people did. GQ was told that the festival had exceeded its attendance targets for the whole weekend on day one, with over 280k attendees by the end of day two. Steve Aoki's pizza place, Pizzaoki, reportedly sold 8,000 pizzas in a day and 35 thousand people had to be turned away from the festival on the first night, because it had already reached capacity. Quite how you quantify those numbers, we’re unsure, but we’ll say this: it was full.
More specifically, it was full of people having fun. The atmosphere was euphoric, which is even more impressive when you consider that Saudi, and this festival, remain alcohol free.
Part of that crowd was made up of the world’s media, GQ Middle East included, come to marvel at the spectacle of kids letting loose and ‘having a big one’ in the unlikeliest of places. The crowds though, were oblivious.
Parties are nothing new to them of course, it’s just not happening behind closed doors any more. And that’s why MDL Beast is so significant.