MDL Beast: What Happened When Saudi Arabia Threw A Rave In The Desert

23 February 2020
Saudi, Photographer, Hayat Osamah, Desert, Party, MDL Beast
Images: Hayat Osamah

A chance to see her country’s first dance-music festival – MDL Beast, was too good an opportunity for Saudi photographer Hayat Osamah to miss

It’s a rare thing, nowadays, to say you’ve witnessed a world-first. Rarer still to be able to document it first-hand. But for Saudi fashion photographer Hayat Osamah, the chance to experience Saudi Arabia’s first dance music festival was as much a matter of personal curiosity as it was a professional job.

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MDL Beast, Saudi Arabia’s three-day EDM festival, held in December last year, seemed to pop up almost overnight in the desert outside Riyadh.

Headlined by Tiesto, David Guetta and Steve Aioki, but with a line-up that was full of local talent too, it was the result of organisers looking keenly at the best examples of the genre − namely huge EDM festivals like Tomorrowland − and hiring the people responsible to make one for them.

In the run up to the festival, a near-global advertising and marketing campaign that involved everything from roadside billboards to celebrity influencers drew attention, not all of it positive, to the festival.

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Nevertheless, what it also did was pique Osamah’s interest.

“I’m trying to document my generation,” said Osamah in January this year, reflecting on the experience. “I look for people who are visually interesting rather than beautiful.”

“When I heard about the festival I said ‘this needs to be documented.’”

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She figured that a chance to watch young Saudis partying in public, in a mixed setting, for the first time in the country’s history, was too good an opportunity to pass up. She was not wrong.

Over three days at the end of 2019, this new festival, new idea, new concept entirely for the region − a three-day party in the desert headlined by the world’s biggest DJs − attracted nearly half a million people. For reference Glastonbury, one of the largest and most well-established music festivals in the world, hosted 200,000 visitors over five days last June.

In fact, MDL Beast was nearly a victim of its own success. While the festival itself was expertly staged, no amount of preparation could have prepared organisers for the number of people curious to see the spectacle unfold. Build it and they will come, goes the saying. Well, they came.

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They came to dance, they came to socialise, they even came to just stand and watch. Roads in and out of the site ground to a halt. People queued for hours as traffic snaked back down the roads for miles. But once they got inside, the atmosphere and energy was astonishing.

Ecstatic crowds, wide-eyed with excitement, teemed through the site, pouring in and out of stage after stage. Osamah’s efforts to capture what she saw, meanwhile, were beset with problems.

Losing her camera on the first day, overwhelmed at the size and spectacle of it all, she had to find a replacement. The resulting pictures, shot on film, in the dark with an on-camera flash, are remarkable. They have the flavour of photos taken in the heyday of the UK’s ’90s rave scene.

Back then, British teenagers would engage in a game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities; setting up speakers in fields and partying until they were either shut down by the police or kicked off the land by disgruntled farmers. These parties gave birth to rave culture, which in turn, much later, gave birth to EDM.

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That these photos, shot 30 years and thousands of miles apart are so similar to those from the original raves, says something about the universal power of dance music. Namely that if you play it loudly in a public place, people will always come in droves and make a party of it.

“People my age were confused whether this was a good or bad thing,” says Osamah. “It was a spiritual question, I think.”

Sure, they were allowed to dance and party in public. But did that make it right?

“As much as we wanted it, it still felt weird when that change happened so fast. I had been in Riyadh for a concert the previous month but when I returned it felt like 10 years had passed.”

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Indeed, the speed at which Saudi’s attitude towards live music and parties is changing is breakneck, but as Osamah says: “People didn’t change; what changed is the laws, that allowed them to be themselves.”

And that’s how she got the shots she did, by being in the right place at the right time to witness those who were allowed to be themselves.

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“Everyone was talking about this concert for days afterwards. To me that’s a sign of change. Bad things happened, good things happened, but a few years from now, this will be the norm.”