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‘It meant so much to them’: Inside Saudi’s first music fest

Jeddah World Fest was a turning point for Saudi's forgotten youth, says Roqu's Robert Quirke: "I have never before in my life seen an audience so joyous and grateful"

By Jon Chapple on 08 Aug 2019

R3wire and Varski play to a "joyous" crowd at Jeddah World Fest

R3wire and Varski play to a "joyous" crowd at Jeddah World Fest

On 18 July, Irish media company Roqu Media International achieved what many never thought possible: it staged a major, ticketed music festival, with big-name international headliners, in Saudi Arabia – arguably marking the kingdom’s emergence as a bona fide new market for live music in the Middle East.

The sold-out Jeddah World Fest took place at King Abdullah Sports Stadium in Jeddah, and featured performances from 50 Cent, Janet Jackson, Chris Brown and Steve Aoki.

Westmeath-based Roqu has now been awarded a contract to deliver the festival for the next three years, with the Saudi state – which is leading the development of a domestic live entertainment sector, ending decades of isolation – keen to capitalise on the event’s success.

IQ caught up with Roqu Media founder Robert Quirke, fresh off a plane from Tbilisi, to reflect on the pioneering festival and ponder its legacy, as well as find out more about Roqu’s work…


IQ: To start off, what is Roqu Media, and what do you do?
RQ: Roqu Media is the culmination of almost two decades of personal experience. Before Roqu, I led a number of organisations in the corporate sector, ranging from online media to data analytics. The highlight of my previous career is undoubtably when I was with IDA Ireland, an Irish government agency specialised in foreign direct investment and job creation.

I was responsible for launching Vevo into the Irish marketplace, developing their first-ever advertising solutions for brands here, which ultimately became a successful revenue stream for the organisation. During that time I also worked closely with MTV, managing their revenue from the Irish advertisers.

All through my previous career, I have had a passion for music and creativity, which I believe ultimately brings people together and can break boundaries. I decided it was time for Roqu to take full flight. The organisation was formed from a desire to make a positive difference in the world though live music experiences.

In Ireland, we worked to deliver MTV Crashes Cork, which was a fantastic project for the city, being broadcast to over 100 countries and promoting Cork in a new and innovative way. Ireland is wonderful, but it is a small territory, I knew that we had to expand globally to achieve the social and economic goals for the organisation.

I set out to win bespoke projects with three main objectives through live music and media: Promote the region to a massive international audience in the most positive way, create a direct economic and social stimulus to the regions, and inspire, motivate and connect the young people of the region.

“I have never before in my life seen an audience so joyous, grateful and full of love and appreciation”

What came next?
Next on the project list was MTV Presents Varna Beach [in Bulgaria], which was a phenomenal project on many levels. The project ran for two years, and we built the live show directly on the sandy beach in Varna city. This was the largest festival staged ever produced in Bulgaria, and the first time that global icon MTV were live in that country.

Again, the TV show beamed worldwide, spawning a double-digit growth in tourism and stimulating job creation. We even managed to negotiate with airlines, which triggered more international flights to Varna.

Jeddah World Fest was your first event in the Middle East, and the first major music festival in Saudi Arabia…
Many firsts: it was also the first televised in Saudi for international broadcast. Entering into the project, we knew there would be challenges, we knew there would be some controversy, and we knew to expect the unexpected.

But we also knew that we are making a difference, and that the relative importance of the project on an international level is unmatched.

How did it compare to previous events you’d staged in other territories?
Being the first at anything means a steep learning curve for all sides. However, as we say at Roqu, a rising tide raises all boats, and never was a statement more true than at Jeddah World Fest. Everyone involved in the project rose above the call of duty to deliver something life-changing and overwhelmingly successful.

Working with the young people in Jeddah was fantastic – incredible support and doing whatever it takes to get the job done. Roqu assembled the best teams in Europe to deliver the project, and we shared knowledge with local partners every step of the way to bring international standards and experience to all operations.

Janet Jackson, Jeddah World Fest

Do you think the success of Jeddah World Fest will help open up Saudi Arabia more for local music fans?
I have never before in my life seen an audience so joyous, grateful and full of love and appreciation: 40,000 young people celebrating together to enjoy one of the greatest nights of their lives like never before. It was such an honour for Roqu to have delivered this. Our event teams were overcome with emotion on the night, the crowd coming up to our teams, hugging and thanking them over and over again…

I’ve never seen that before. It meant so much to the young people of that country, and you can see this in the hundreds of thousands of comments and posts on social media. There is absolutely no doubt that this is a turning point in Saudi youth culture and live entertainment. The future is incredibly bright and full of hope for the new generation.

You lost a headliner, Nicki Minaj, at the last minute, but luckily had a replacement on hand. Presumably, that was something you were prepared for, given the controversy that surrounds the Saudi regime…
Correct, we try to be a step – or two – ahead. The line-up was secured earlier, but we did not announce until closer to the live show.

The artists who came to the show immediately saw the positive energy and responsiveness of the crowd. All believed they are contributing to positive change, and they are. The only way to make a difference is to support, not isolate. I was called backstage by one of the headliners after his set and he looked me in the eye and told me, “Keep doing what you’re doing”. We intend to.

“When one of the headliners pulled out, the young people of Saudi felt abandoned”

On that topic, what would your response be to those who say the Saudi government is engaging in “culture-washing” to improve its image, and that companies like Roqu are complicit in that?
We are there for the new generation. We are there to build bridges between the young people of Saudi and the global community. Inclusion is the key, not isolation.

When one of the headliners pulled out, the young people of Saudi felt abandoned. That performer could have gone out there and made a difference.  I find it elitist and outlandish to slam young people just because of their nationality.

I’m Irish – born on an island. Building social bridges is how we connect with the world.

How many tickets did you sell, and what proportion of those were bought by non-Saudis?
In total, 40,000 people attended. Approximately 15% were non-Saudis, and we expect this number to grow in 2020.

The new online e-visa system [used to sell Jeddah World Fest tickets] is fantastic.

Where and when will the festival be broadcast?
The TV show is currently in final editing, I’ve seen it and we have some incredible and inspirational content. The first broadcast will begin in early September in the USA. I’m not allowed to say where…

After the premiere, it will be opened out to additional broadcasters and networks around the world. Remember, this is the first ever televised music festival in Saudi Arabia – what a moment in music and media.

50 Cent, Jeddah World Fest

How was artist reaction to the Jeddah World Fest? Did Janet Jackson, Liam Payne and co enjoy playing for the local fans?
One hundred percent yes. Just look at the smiles in the footage. Liam Payne’s on-stage statement of “music unites us” is testament to the emotion and positive energy on the night – and 50 Cent [pictured] had such a good show, he decided to change his name to ‘50 Halala’!

The local fans knew every rap and lyric, singing along loudly. Thumbs up from artists and agents.

Besides Jeddah, what’s next for Roqu Media?
Roqu Media is not a traditional promoter, or agent, or production company, or media organisation… like most things Irish, we do things a little differently. We want to innovate and make positive change in the world.

We don’t do ‘concerts’. We work exclusively with governments, heads of state and cities, and each bespoke project is centred around music and media, produced specifically for global TV broadcast. They carry a specific meaning and purpose. Our team walks away from every project feeling they have made a difference, and they have.

I can’t divulge too much information ahead of time, but 2020 will see important and really meaningful projects in Russia and Georgia. The other side of our business is in tech development, and a Roqu streaming platform will be launched to the world in Q1 2020. It’s a bit hush right now, but very exciting for our team.


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