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MDL Beast festival to debut in Saudi Arabia

David Guetta, Martin Garrix and Steve Aoki are among acts confirmed for electronic dance music (EDM) festival MDL Beast, the latest addition to Saudi Arabia’s flourishing festival scene.

The inaugural MDL Beast festival is taking place from 19 to 21 December 2019 in Riyadh, home to the 70,000-capacity King Fahd Stadium which recently hosted k-pop stars BTS.

The multi-stage festival will feature 18 international headliners and 28 global dance acts including Afrojack, Camelphat, J Balvin and Tiësto, as well as 24 local and regional performers, such as EDM DJ Cosmicat and local DJ duo Dish Dash.

Steve Aoki, who this summer performed at Roqu Media’s Jeddah World Fest – the first, major, ticketed music festival in the country – comments: “When I got the offer to play at the three-day MDL Beast festival, I was thrilled to become part of it and be back in the region again. It’s go[ing to] be an incredible event with tons of acts and lots of new names.”

“We’re confident MDL Beast will be like nothing seen before and we cannot wait to experience this transformative musical milestone”

Ahmad Alammary, DJ and member of the festival team, adds: “More than just a music festival, MDL Beast is also a platform with multiple [projects] including ongoing seasonal local and global events, online and radio channels, recording studios, and a non-profit foundation promoting music education and therapy.

“We’re confident MDL Beast will be like nothing seen before and we cannot wait to experience this transformative musical milestone.”

“I’m so proud of the fact that we’re hosting this festival in Saudi; it’s a great reflection of the Saudi audience being able to experience the music they love,” comments Cosmicat. “As one of the first female EDM DJs here, I’m excited to be flying the flag and representing women on the scene.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to boost its live entertainment offering and cement its place on the international touring map, criticism is still levelled at artists who opt to play in the kingdom. Nicki Minaj pulled out of Jeddah World Fest following pressure from human rights organisations and BTS’ appearance in the country sparked a mixed reaction from fans.

Fans can register for tickets to the MDL Beast here.

 


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Saudi’s live success divides international opinion

K-pop stars BTS became the first international band to play a solo stadium concert in Saudi Arabia on Friday (11 October), in what has been lauded as the start of a “new story” for live entertainment in the kingdom by some, and accused of “whitewashing” an authoritarian regime by others.

The BTS show, which drew an audience of around 40,000 at Riyadh’s 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium, marked the first day of Saudi Arabia’s eight-week Riyadh Season, the biggest of eleven region-specific seasons aiming to boost live entertainment offerings and touristic activities across the country.

“Getting BTS is a huge win, because they are the most in demand,” James Craven, president of Live Nation Middle East, told Arab News.

“Two years ago, no one would have ever expected us to bring in international touring artists into Saudi,” says Craven. “I want the people in the industry to come and see the changes, come and see what’s happening and meet the people.”

More shows by international artists are yet to be announced for Riyadh. Craven explains that demand for concerts is high, resulting in a sales cycle of only a few days. “In Saudi, you can actually put [tickets] out on sale three days before a show and have it sold out,” says Craven.

“I want the people in the industry to come and see the changes, come and see what’s happening and meet the people”

Other successful live events to have taken place in the kingdom this year include Roqu Media-promoted Jeddah World Fest and performances from Mariah Carey, Jason Derulo and Marshmello.

Criticisms have been levelled at international artists who play in Saudi Arabia. Non-profit organisation Human Rights Foundation (HRF) has been especially vocal on the subject.

“Rather than using their platform to denounce the Saudi regime’s abuses, BTS chose to whitewash the regime’s human rights violations by performing in Riyadh today,” reads a HRF twitter post.

“HRF calls on celebrities to think twice before endorsing authoritarian regimes.”

Rapper Nicki Minaj pulled out of Jeddah World Fest following pressure from the human rights organisation in July.

Fans took to social media with the hashtag BTSDontGo to show their discontent with the Saudi concert. The band had previously defended their decision to play in the country, admitting it was not an “easy” one to make, but explaining that “if there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there.”

 


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Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart to play Saudi concert series

Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart and Enrique Iglesias are among acts to perform at Winter at Tantora Festival, an eleven-week celebration of culture in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia.

The concerts are taking place as part of Ula season, one of eleven region-specific cultural event series forming part of Saudi Arabia’s new Saudi Seasons initiative. Ula season will run from December 19 to March 7, with performances from Egyptian musician Omar Khairat and Greek pianist Yanni also scheduled.

The live music events will take place every weekend throughout the season at the new 500-capacity, 5,000-square metre Maraya concert hall. Arabic for ‘mirror’, Maraya was completed in January 2019 in the old town of Al Ula. The festival is expected to attract around 40,000 visitors.

Lionel Richie, Rod Stewart and Enrique Iglesias are among acts to perform at Winter at Tantora Festival

Luanched last year, Winter at Tantora 2018/2019 ran from 20 December to 9 February, with performances from Italian singer Andrea Bocelli and French violinist Renaud Capuçon.

The festival is one in a series of major live entertainment events cropping up in Saudi Arabia, including Roqu Media-promoted Jeddah World Fest and an upcoming show by K-pop sensations BTS, which will open Riyadh season on 11 October at the 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium.

Tickets for the 2019/2020 Winter at Tantora shows will become available early October. The full line-up of artists is yet to be confirmed. More information on tickets and concert dates can be found here.

 


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Saudi Arabia bolsters entertainment offering

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA) is pushing forward with its commitment to boosting the live events in the country, forming partnerships with event producers and creating “seasons” dedicated to different kinds of entertainment activities.

The GEA recently launched its own website, calling for applications from event organisers and potential partners ahead of the upcoming Riyadh Season, which is considered the biggest entertainment event in the country’s capital. The deadline for application is at the end of August.

The Saudi Seasons 2019 programme, launched by Saudi Arabia’s Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, divides the year into eleven sections, with cultural events dedicated to a specific region of the country in each one.

Around 20 million visitors are expected to visit the two-month long Riyadh season from 11 October to 15 December, which promises to be the most entertainment-focused yet. The season kicks off with a performance by K-pop stars BTS at the capital city’s 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium.

A major music event closed the recent Jeddah season, in the form of the Roqu Media-promoted Jeddah World Fest, which took place from June 8 to July 18, constituting the kingdom’s largest music festival to date.

“The GEA has a stated ambition to become one of the top-ten global entertainment destinations”

“The GEA has a stated ambition to become one of the top-ten global entertainment destinations and win back a share of the $20 billion that Saudi nationals spend on the overseas sector each year,” states Dishan Isaac, senior show manager of the Prolight + Sound Middle East exhibition.

According to the Saudi Gazette, the authority has also recently established partnerships with other event producers including National Geographic Encounter, IMG Artists and LuxuryKSA, in its bid to boost the entertainment sector.

“These agreements will require new venues to be built for these entertainment programs, fuelling increased supply opportunities in the country,” adds Isaac.

The Saudi government announced a US$2.67 billion investment in the entertainment sector in 2017, as part of its Vision 2030 economic reform plan.

Since then, the kingdom has seen performances from international artists including Mariah Carey, Jason Derulo and Marshmello, hosted its first-ever major, ticketed music festival and put on its first gender-integrated concert series.

 


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‘It meant so much to them’: Inside Saudi’s first music 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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Saudi Arabia festival “turning point” for youth culture

Jeddah World Fest, the largest music festival to take place in Saudi Arabia, has been dubbed as “overwhelmingly successful” by organisers Roqu Media International.

The sold-out festival, which took place on 18 July, saw performances by 50 Cent, Janet Jackson, Chris Brown and Steve Aoki. Nicki Minaj, originally billed as a headliner for the event, pulled out a week before following pressure from human rights organisations.

The Ireland-based Roqu Media now has a contract to deliver the festival for the next three years. The media production company is also preparing similar events to take place in Russia, Georgia and South Africa.

Speaking to the Sunday Times, Roqu president Robert Quirke says the Saudi festival was “overwhelmingly successful [but] extremely challenging given the local circumstances.”

“[Jeddah World Fest is] a turning point for all youth culturally”

According to Quirke, Jeddah World Fest is helping to change perceptions of the country, serving as a “turning point for all youth culturally”. The event, like all those produced by Roqu, was broadcast live on television in countries across the world.

The international live entertainment market in Saudi Arabia is still in relatively early days. Many acts have faced criticism for adding the country to their touring schedule due to human rights’ concerns.

The kingdom hosted its first-ever mixed gender music festival in December last year. Korean pop stars BTS will become the first international group to play a solo stadium concert in the country in October.

Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority has said it plans to spend US$64 billion on the sector over the next decade.

 


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Saudi’s Jeddah Fest secures 50 Cent, Janet Jackson

Saudi Arabia’s largest-ever music festival, Jeddah World Fest, is taking place today (18 July), with the last-minute additions of Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Chris Brown and Future.

The artists will perform alongside Liam Payne, Steve Aoki and Tyga at the 63,241-capacity King Abdullah Sports Stadium in Jeddah.

The newly added acts replace rapper Nicki Minaj, who cancelled her appearance at the sold-out music festival last week, following pressure from human rights organisations.

The president of the Human Rights Foundation – the principle organisation urging acts to boycott shows in Saudi Arabia – says it is “profoundly distressing that they [the artists] have chosen money over morals.”

“These individuals constantly make public statements of support for LGBT rights and women’s rights, except, apparently, when a seven-figure check is attached”

“These individuals constantly make public statements of support for LGBT rights and women’s rights, except, apparently, when a seven-figure check is attached,” Halvorssen told the Associated Press.

Jeddah World Fest is part of the Saudi government’s campaign to open up the live entertainment market, following a US$2.7 billion investment in the sector in 2017.

K-pop stars BTS were the latest act to add the country to their touring schedule, announcing an October show in Riyadh. Mariah Carey, Jason Derulo, Enrique Iglesias, the Black Eyed Peas and Tiesto are among international acts to have recently played in the country.

 


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BTS Saudi Arabia concert prompts mixed reaction

K-pop stars BTS have added a date at Saudi Arabia’s 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium to their 2019 world tour.

BTS are the latest high-profile act to announce dates in Saudi Arabia, as the kingdom continues its bid to put itself on the touring map. The boy band would be the first international group to play a solo stadium concert in the country. The concert is scheduled to take place on 11 October 2019 as part of the band’s Love Yourself: Speak Yourself tour.

However, some fans have taken to social media to criticise the decision, questioning the Saudi government’s human rights record.

Nicki Minaj recently cancelled her appearance at the country’s largest-ever music festival, Jeddah World Fest, citing support for women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.

Human Rights Foundation (HRF), the organisation that lobbied for Minaj’s cancellation, is also urging fellow headliner Liam Payne to withdraw from the festival.

“Saudi Arabia is attempting to change the country’s image in part by developing an entertainment industry”

In a statement to Middle East Eye, Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle said that Saudi Arabia was “attempting to change the country’s image in part by developing an entertainment industry and hosting concerts by well-known artists”, and encouraged artists to speak out against abuses.

Others believe the opening up of the live entertainment market is a sign of Saudi Arabia’s growing liberalisation.

Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever gender-integrated concert series last December. The following month, Mariah Carey became the first international female to perform a solo concert at the King Abdullah stadium.

Jeddah World Fest takes place later this week (Thursday 18 July) at the 63,241-capacity King Abdullah Sports Stadium. All tickets for the event have sold-out.

Tickets for the King Fahd stadium tour date will become available soon.

 


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Nicki Minaj pulls out of Saudi music festival

Rapper Nick Minaj has cancelled her upcoming performance at Jeddah World Fest in Saudi Arabia, citing support for women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.

Minaj was billed to perform alongside EDM artist Steve Aoki and former One Direction member Liam Payne at Saudi Arabia’s largest-ever music festival, which takes place on Thursday 18 July at the 63,241-capacity King Abdullah Sports Stadium in Jeddah.

“After careful reflection I have decided to no longer move forward with my scheduled concert at Jeddah World Fest,” the singer said in a statement.

“While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.”

The decision comes after the president of US-based Human Rights Foundation (HRF) penned an open letter to Minaj asking her to cancel the appearance “as a symbol of solidarity with the ongoing suffering of the Saudi people.”

“After better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression”

HRF president Thor Halvorssen detailed cases of human rights abuses in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which he describes as “one of the most repressive regimes on earth”.

Halvorssen has since praised Minaj’s decision to pull out of the festival, and urged Payne to do the same.

“We are grateful to Nicki Minaj for her inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the Saudi regime’s transparent attempt at using her for a public relations stunt,” writes the HRF president.

After years of restrictions on entertainment, Jeddah World Fest signifies the next step in Saudi Arabia’s embrace of live music events.

A post on the festival’s Facebook page states that Minaj had cancelled “due to personal reasons”. A second wave performers will be announced later this week.

The kingdom hosted its first mixed gender music festival in December, featuring artists including Jason Derulo, Enrique Iglesias and David Guetta. A US$2.7 billion fund was established in 2017 to kickstart the entertainment sector.

 


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Nicki Minaj to headline Saudi Arabia’s first major music fest

After hosting its first-ever gender-integrated concert series at the Formula E ePrix last December, the rapidly liberalising kingdom of Saudi Arabia is preparing for its first major music festival, which debuts this month.

Part of the Jeddah Season festival, Jeddah World Fest, organised by Ireland-based Roqu Media International, will take place at King Abdullah Sports Stadium (63,241-cap.) in Jeddah on Thursday 18 July, and feature international performers including Nicki Minaj, Steve Aoki and former One Direction member Liam Payne.

It is the latest and most significant move by Saudi Arabia’s rulers to open up the conservative Islamic kingdom – which until recently considered secular music haram, or sinful – to touring live entertainment, and comes nearly two years after the General Authority for Entertainment (GEA), the body tasked with driving growth in the entertainment sector, announced a US$2.7 billion fund to attract international partners.

Commenting on the line-up, Roqu’s Robert Quirke says Minaj (pictured) is “an absolute global icon. She has 130 million followers on Instagram, she is considered one of the top 10 female performers of all time, she’s had multiple awards and she’ll have her new album come out this year.

“She is going to get a lot of attention for Jeddah in the most positive way you can imagine. She’s going to be actively on her social media, she’ll be posting right from the stage in Jeddah and at her hotel in Jeddah. Everyone is going to know that Nicki Minaj has landed in Saudi Arabia.”

“Everyone is going to know that Nicki Minaj has landed in Saudi Arabia”

Other performers include Ministry of Sound-signed DJs R3wire and Varski, who “will make sure that the crowd stays absolutely pumped” between artist sets, adds Quirke.

The event will also be streamed live internationally, according to Raed Abuzinadah, the director-general of Jeddah Season, who says Jeddah World Fest is set to be “the largest musical festival of its kind in the region, that will be broadcast to a global audience in more than 100 countries,” reports Gulf News.

“There is a stereotype of the kingdom all over the world, and today it is disappearing,” Abuzinadah told reporters recently. “In its place is a new picture of the kingdom that accepts everyone. “This is the first global music festival of this scale in [Saudi Arabia] and is sure to absolutely wow the lucky audience in Jeddah like never before.”

Tickets are being sold via the website of Sharek, Saudi Arabia’s new e-visa system.

 


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