International

Can Saudi Arabia Become the Middle East's Live Music Superpower?

Brandon Flowers and The Killers
Rob Loud

Brandon Flowers and The Killers onstage at du Arena in Abu Dhabi in December.

Offering large advances and 33 million potential music consumers, the kingdom's new push into entertainment is overshadowing neighbors like Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

DUBAI — David Guetta, Enrique Iglesias and The Black Eyed Peas made history in Saudi Arabia last December when they performed at a festival that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable in the socially repressive kingdom, where women were segregated from men and concerts were banned for a quarter century.

Just months earlier, the country's ruling family had relaxed long-standing restrictions on social activities and the arts, allowing women to drive and men and women to attend entertainment events together for the first time. So some 25,000 Saudis — including women who drove themselves to the concerts without wearing headscarves — attended the three-day festival in the capital of Riyadh.

"People just didn't believe it," says Ahmad Alammary, a Saudi who performs as DJ Baloo, about the festival's first day. "Then they saw the footage of it and were like, ‘OK, we're partying now.' It was a dream come true."

On Dec. 19, the kingdom is set to top itself. MDL Beast, a three-day electronic music festival with over 70 acts on five stages — including headliners Martin Garrix, Tiësto and Guetta — is set to become Saudi Arabia's largest live music event ever.

As the country continues its efforts to modernize, Saudi Arabia is shaking up the Middle East touring scene. Government-subsidized events are paying artists two to three times their normal fees — and up to twice what neighboring countries offer, several agents and promoters tell Billboard. Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi — which previously dominated the region's scant concert map — have been overshadowed by the potential of a wealthy Saudi Arabia, a country with 33 million people, nearly 60% of whom are under the age of 30.

The kingdom's push into entertainment has been fast, furious and well-financed, say agents and concert organizers. Two years ago, the kingdom set in motion a long-term plan, dubbed Vision 2030, to diversify its oil-based economy, including $2.7 billion earmarked for entertainment. The plan's goals include boosting tourism and creating jobs.

"There's still good money in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," says Bruno del Granado, an agent at Creative Artists Agency that represents Maluma. "But the money in Saudi Arabia dwarfs what's in Egypt, Turkey or any other Middle Eastern country."

Over a decade ago, Dubai typically overpaid for talent due to geography and travel logistics. Saudi Arabia, in its bid to jump-start its entertainment sector, has done the same, with even deeper pockets, agents say.

Lately, the Saudi government and a small patchwork of nascent private promoters have been pressing their advantage. After the December 2018 show — where offers reached as high as six times some artists' usual fees, according to one agent involved in the discussions — a series of events the following year drew top performers, including Maluma, Janet Jackson and 50 Cent. On Dec. 13 and 14, Calvin Harris, Major Lazer and Swedish House Mafia headlined the Diriyah Festival in Riyadh.

The largely government-subsidized shows in Saudi Arabia have kept ticket prices down, to about $50 to $75 on average, organizers say, which is lower than comparable events in Abu Dhabi, where tickets average $100 to $150.

While it's still early, Live Nation is on the ground booking talent and producing shows. And the newly formed ASM Global, which controls the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai that opened in 2018, is searching for sites for new venues, says CEO Bob Newman. "We have several other projects [in the region] that we're researching and looking at," he says. "We're betting on the potential of the market right now."

The market in Dubai, which established the Middle East on the touring map 15 years ago, has been hurt by an economic slowdown and a looming financial crisis that has made it harder for promoters to offer premium fees, agents say. The live business in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates capital with 1.4 million people, relies largely on expats; sponsorship revenue there fell by 20% in 2019 amid lower oil prices, says John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, the government's events arm.

Despite its impressive first year, Saudi Arabia has yet to lure the same level of global superstar as Abu Dhabi. Flash Entertainment, building around the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix race, has hosted Coldplay three times, along with Beyoncé, Madonna and the Rolling Stones. Bruno Mars is set to perform on New Year's Eve.

So far, at least, there aren't many world-class arenas in the region. The Coca-Cola Arena, with a capacity of 17,000, is the only multipurpose venue of that size in the area. Another, the Yas Bay Arena, is set to open in April in Abu Dhabi, and will be operated by Flash Entertainment. The du Arena, an amphitheater in Abu Dhabi, is the region's largest outdoor venue, with a 50,000 capacity; The Killers and Lana Del Rey performed there in the past month.

Saudi Arabia relies more on purpose-built outdoor venues, which limits its concert season to 10 months. The MDL Beast festival, which organizers are hoping will draw 200,000 ticket-buyers over three days, will rely on stages designed and built in Belgium and flown to Riyadh, says Alammary, who is also a brand strategist for MDL Beast.

While playing Saudi Arabia can be attractive financially, it can also be controversial. The 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly at the direction of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, drew strong pushback from human rights activists, who urged Guetta and others to cancel their shows. Nicki Minaj pulled out of her show in Jeddah in July citing her support for women's and LGBTQ rights and freedom of expression.

Thomas Ovesen, entertainment director for the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, a Saudi government agency, says that "no artist is being asked to endorse anything but the opportunity to play for their new fans."

Some in the music industry say that Saudi Arabia's push into entertainment may also be intended to satiate restless youth starving for diversion. "I go back to demographics," says del Granado. With such a young population, the ruling family may be trying to give Saudis jobs and entertainment, "because if not, here comes the Arab Spring."

Del Granado says he was struck by how young the audience was at Maluma's show in Saudi Arabia in November — and how well they knew the Latin star's music, despite the language barrier. "They are getting this music somewhere," he says. "This [felt like] it could have been a concert in Los Angeles or Buenos Aires or Santiago."

Newman and others expect the Middle East concert business to take off over the next half-decade. "I could see three or four touring stops in Saudi alone," says Ovesen. After this initial rush, though, the free-flow of government funding is expected to abate, as more privately financed promoters enter the kingdom. "The market's going to settle down and mature eventually," says del Granado. "They're doing this thing on steroids to plant the seed. It can't go on like this."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21 issue of Billboard.