Music in the Middle East: Business can’t Buy Authenticity

20 December, 2021
SOUNDSTORM 2021 fea­tured Armin Van Buuren, Adam Bey­er and oth­ers in Riyadh.

Melissa Chemam, columnist


As I antic­i­pat­ed in last mon­th’s col­umn, the EDM fes­ti­val SOUNDSTORM took place in mid-Decem­ber in the Sau­di cap­i­tal Riyadh, attract­ing more than 180,000 par­tic­i­pants, despite Covid and its new threat of the Omi­cron vari­ant. Many in Sau­di Ara­bia cel­e­brat­ed the event as a major suc­cess for their diplomacy.

This year, the coun­try also wel­comed a For­mu­la 1 com­pe­ti­tion and an inter­na­tion­al film fes­ti­val — it is impos­si­ble not to see these events as a part of the country’s soft pow­er and pol­i­cy to white­wash its ter­ri­ble human rights record.

For some­one like the Wash­ing­ton-based Lebanese/Dutch jour­nal­ist Kim Ghat­tas, author of Black Wave: Sau­di Ara­bia, Iran and the Rival­ry that Unrav­elled the Mid­dle East, it is obvi­ous­ly the goal. Dur­ing the Decem­ber 17 British pod­cast Oh God What Now?, she said that the objec­tive is “to give Sau­di Ara­bia a shiny out­side image to the out­side world, make every­one for­get about some of their past and still present abus­es, whether it is women who are still in jail, the mur­der and dis­mem­ber­ing of the jour­nal­ist Jamal Khashog­gi in the Sau­di con­sulate in Turkey in 2018, and oth­er aggres­sive for­eign pol­i­cy moves like the war in Yemen. This is all to show the world a dif­fer­ent image.” 

In a Human Rights Watch opin­ion about the fes­ti­val, pub­lished on the 15th of Decem­ber and writ­ten under the pseu­do­nym of Arwa Youssef by a staff mem­ber, who fears for her/his secu­ri­ty, HRW argued, “Glob­al music super­stars slat­ed to per­form at the upcom­ing MDL Beast Sound­storm Fes­ti­val in Sau­di Ara­bia should speak up for human rights or else not par­tic­i­pate.” The anony­mous staffer went on, “Those per­form­ing in the event, which is spon­sored by the Sau­di gov­ern­ment, as well as the influ­encers who pro­mote it, should dis­tance them­selves from the country’s attempts to white­wash its hor­rif­ic rights record.”

This sad state of affairs unfor­tu­nate­ly leaves musi­cians and artists from the region with very lim­it­ed free­dom to prac­tice their arts in a respect­ful and pro­gres­sive envi­ron­ment. On the one hand, the fes­ti­val has obvi­ous­ly been used by the Sau­di gov­ern­ment, which invest­ed in it. But on the oth­er, as Kim Ghat­tas also not­ed, for Sau­di cit­i­zens, these events are in part good news, show­ing that a seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion ben­e­fits from the rip­ple effects of this new-found exter­nal pol­i­cy, so they are able to enjoy them­selves, and that’s a novelty.

For oth­er com­men­ta­tors, it is the only way for the region to cre­ate its own cul­tur­al infra­struc­ture. In an arti­cle in Music Week, the Tunisian jour­nal­ist Sofia Guel­laty, founder and cre­ative direc­tor of cre­ative agency Mille World – an advo­cate for Sound­storm – explained that with more than 60% of the country’s 35 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion being under 30, a new music-dri­ven cul­ture is emerg­ing in the region, and it should be some­thing to cel­e­brate. “At the core of this has been a gov­ern­ment-led ini­tia­tive to open Sau­di Ara­bia to the world,” she penned, “and more impor­tant­ly, to show the world what Sau­di Ara­bia is tru­ly made of. I am talk­ing mil­lions of kids who, after years, now have the license to explore who they tru­ly are by being offered cul­tur­al con­tent that is unbound­ed, unfil­tered, and, more impor­tant­ly, authen­tic and rel­e­vant to their own stories.”

Guel­laty sees Sau­di Ara­bia as a leader for the Arab world, and an inspi­ra­tion beyond the West­ern mod­el. “Here, mil­lions of peo­ple who nev­er dared to dream of mak­ing it in cre­ative indus­tries are offered incred­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties they would nev­er find abroad,” Guel­laty added. “And MDLBEAST is one of them.” She con­clud­ed: “While I’m not Sau­di, I take a huge sense of pride in what’s hap­pen­ing as an Arab, and I want to be a part of this new shift.”


Over the past few weeks, I dis­cussed the impact of this fes­ti­val with music pro­duc­ers, researchers and oth­er writers.

As I enjoyed the Bris­tol Pales­tin­ian Film Fes­ti­val, I thought about Pales­tin­ian DJs and pro­duc­ers who were some of the pio­neers of the scene, from the ear­ly 2000s, but could not find enough means to per­form at home. Their only way to exist as per­form­ers is for­eign fes­ti­vals. Even a singer-song­writer like Kam­ilya Jubran, who was one of the first to use elec­tron­ic tools in Pales­tin­ian music, end­ed up mov­ing to Europe in 2002 to be able to pur­sue her career.

These days, the Pales­tin­ian tech­no queen Sama’ Abdul­ha­di, who has per­formed as a DJ all over the world, knows the issue too well. Last year, she per­formed and shot a music video near a holy shrine at home in the West Bank, near the Nabi Musa mosque. And she end­ed up being arrest­ed by Pales­tin­ian police, then jailed for eight days. The event had been licensed by the Pales­tin­ian min­is­ter of tourism and was intend­ed to be fea­tured in an inter­na­tion­al music event to be livestreamed on the music and gam­ing site for young peo­ple In the fol­low­ing hours, more than 6,000 peo­ple signed an online peti­tion demand­ing Sama’s release. And her arrest was crit­i­cized by human rights groups. 

Over the past ten years, artists and DJs like Sama’ have ben­e­fit­ted from the rise of social media in the Mid­dle East, but they still need to either per­form or to get fund­ing in order to sur­vive; and these are assets that they can rarely find at home. The elec­tron­ic music scene ben­e­fits from a west­ern busi­ness mod­el that has allowed more artists from the Arab world and the Mid­dle East in gen­er­al to emerge, but it comes with strings attached, a cap­i­tal­is­tic enter­prise, a mon­ey-dri­ven pro­duc­tion sys­tem. And clear­ly the Emi­rates and Sau­di Ara­bia have more finan­cial means than Tunisia, Pales­tine and Lebanon.

The ques­tion is rather, can there be a moral and social­ly-aware way to pro­duce major music events at all any­where in the world? And could such a mod­el reach the Mid­dle East? Where does the music come from? Is it authen­ti­cal­ly broadcast?

Cur­rent­ly nei­ther Tunisia, Pales­tine nor Lebanon have the infra­struc­ture for major inter­na­tion­al fes­ti­vals, but do they even want them?

I dis­cussed this recent­ly with the Lon­don-based Gaza-born Pales­tin­ian play­wright Ahmed Masoud, who offered a stark reminder that Pales­tini­ans don’t even have con­stant clean run­ning water all day or enough elec­tric­i­ty, let alone well-equipped venues.

So, one could fur­ther ask: is it fair to par­ty when most cit­i­zens in such places can bare­ly obtain decent liv­ing con­di­tions? And how to keep the arts alive? Of course, spaces for cre­ativ­i­ty and enjoy­ment remains cru­cial, and such spaces are often places where diver­si­ty thrives. But they have to go hand in hand with social issues, such as eth­i­cal work­ing con­di­tions, access for all parts of soci­ety and not only the super-rich, and respect for human rights. 

For many engaged artists and activists, the elec­tro scene is sym­bol­ic because it emerged from the under­ground and sub­ur­ban scenes, as a way to reac­ti­vate the Arab sources of mod­ern music. Just like African Amer­i­can music, tra­di­tion­al Arab musi­cians did influ­ence new move­ments such as dis­co and elec­tro. Inter­na­tion­al mega stars like Cher and Fred­dy Mer­cury were quite vocal about their ori­gins, in Arme­nia and Iran respec­tive­ly, and their inter­est in non-West­ern music from Per­sia or India. And Egypt­ian musi­cian Hal­im El Dabh, who lat­er moved to the USA, is con­sid­ered by many to be the father of elec­tron­ic music, thanks to his pio­neer­ing work in the 1950s in Cairo and in the ear­ly 1960s at the Colum­bia-Prince­ton Elec­tron­ic Music Cen­ter. And I’d like to ded­i­cate a com­ing col­umn to his journey!

For now, what I can con­clude is that expan­sive major fes­ti­vals are nev­er going to be the most gen­uine vehi­cle for authen­tic Mid­dle East­ern voic­es and cre­ators. So it is also up to lis­ten­ers and music lovers to find ways to sup­port alter­na­tive music scenes in respect­ful ways. And these remain to be com­plete­ly and con­stant­ly reimagined.



Inline Feedbacks
View all comments