A Saudi Rave Sparks Debate Over Kingdom’s Cultural Transformation

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia—Pulsating purple lights played across the traditional coral stone- and-wood facades of buildings in the center of this ancient Saudi port city on the Red Sea while electronic music boomed and young men and women in jeans and glittery tops danced with glow sticks.

The recent musical festival in Jeddah’s Al-Balad neighborhood drew an audience of around 25,000 celebrating young people. It also stirred criticism of a rapid cultural shift in the kingdom being pushed by its day-to-day ruler,

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The 37-year-old heir to the throne has moved to permit women to drive, disempowered the morality police and opened the country to public entertainments from pop concerts to movies and sporting events that were once banned in the name of strict adherence to the rules of Islam.

Many of the changes have been popular. Very few have provoked the kind of public criticism that has followed the festival, called Balad Beast, which turned the streets of Al-Balad into an open-air concert. Yet people are debating whether things are changing too much, too fast.

For some, the juxtaposition of traditional and modern symbolized the new Saudi Arabia. “You have to be open to new things,” said Lola Mohammad, a 23-year-old accountant. She said the festival was an event that “honors my heritage but also embraces the future.”

Others found the combination—in a neighborhood that is a Unesco World Heritage site—disturbing. “It is so upsetting that this place, which is so closely tied with our Islamic history and traditions, is now a stage for rowdiness, neon lights and bumping music,” said Hassan Ahmad, 31, an Al-Balad merchant.

It is a conversation playing out on social media and around dinner tables across the kingdom.

Balad Beast featured some musicians from abroad including the American rapper Busta Rhymes, but was largely local talent. The stage was set up to look like the facade of an old Al-Balad home. The aroma of frankincense filled the air. Servers in traditional attire offered coffee, dates and shawarma sandwiches. 

Moayad Alnefaie, a rapper and Jeddah native, belted out Arabic rap verses while strutting in a traditional Saudi men’s robe and headdress, his signature look. “Make some noise, Jeddah,” he shouted out in English to the hundreds of people singing along to his lyrics. 

“I love that they stayed true to Al-Balad’s real identity,” said Sara Khaled, a 31-year old consultant visiting her hometown, Jeddah, from the capital, Riyadh. “You get the party scene but also Ramadan vibes,” she said, referring to the annual festival in Al-Balad for Islam’s holy month.

At the same time, the event pushed the limits of what is acceptable in Saudi Arabia. Some women eschewed the abaya—a loose and long outer garment—for metallic and shimmery variations, while others wore oversize jackets that covered tight jeans and crop tops.    

The loud, largely Western music, flashing lights and nontraditional crowd felt to some like a foreign-inspired intrusion into one of Saudi Arabia’s oldest and most traditional neighborhoods.  

“Honestly it’s really weird seeing all this,” said Khalid Asri, 20, a marketing student who attended the electronic-music festival. “Having this type of setup in the middle of all these historical buildings feels awkward. It just doesn’t work.”

Prince Mohammed,

who runs the country day to day for his father,

King Salman,

has said he is trying to shake up Saudi society. About four decades ago the monarchy cut a deal that gave ultraconservative religious authorities wide control over culture in exchange for clerics’ loyalty to the crown. 

‘I know they said we don’t have to wear abayas anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to go the other extreme.’

— Nada Abdullah, hairstylist

The deal helped stem a tide of political extremism in Saudi Arabia that had been sweeping the Middle East but resulted in the kingdom’s becoming one of the most closed off places in the world. Prince Mohammed has sidelined religious authorities, sometimes jailing them, in a bid to open back up.

Prince Mohammed said in 2018 that women aren’t required to wear abayas, the traditional cloak women wear throughout the Gulf region, but there is still an expectation of modest dress. 

“I know they said we don’t have to wear abayas anymore, but that doesn’t mean we have to go the other extreme,” says Nada Abdullah, a hairstylist from Riyadh.

Even the idea of music has rubbed many conservative Saudis the wrong way. After a long prohibition, Saudi Arabia reintroduced music in public spaces in recent years, with concert halls and open-mic nights quickly filling up. 

The government planned to start music classes in public schools, but there was a backlash among parents to the idea. The government delayed the plans, citing the need to train teachers.

At Al Ula, an ancient desert trading post that the kingdom has begun championing as a tourist destination, a video of mostly Western female bloggers dressed in skimpy bikinis went viral on Saudi social media and caused outrage.

There is no reliable polling in Saudi Arabia. Ali Shihabi, a Saudi political commentator often aligned with Prince Mohammed’s views, said the popularity of events such as Balad Beast and other new public entertainment options needs to be judged on the attendance of tens of thousands of Saudis.

“I think there is a little bit of shock therapy in the government’s strategy because it is messaging society that you can be creative, that you can be more open, that you can experiment,” said Mr. Shihabi. 

Write to Donna Abdulaziz at donna.abdulaziz@wsj.com

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