MDLBeast – Driving the Diversity Agenda in Saudi

MDLBeast Strategy Director, Nada Alhelabi

From zero to several hundred thousand in one event in 2019 is an impressive start, but Soundstorm has provided the means for promoters MDLBeast to drive cultural change at a rapid pace, as well as gathering a diverse, impressive international audience together at their annual conference, XP. We spent Zoom time with Strategy Director, Nada Alhelabi to find out more about their activities, their achievements, and their mission to create positive influence in Saudi Arabia and beyond.

A company formed in 2019 in a sector paused in 2020, there’s not a great deal of history to talk about, one also gets the feeling that this is a fully future facing organisation, so we begin with the recent past and their attendance at April’s International Music Summit (IMS), a first for an organisation from the Middle East. I asked how it went:

I think I IMS was a great opportunity for us to be part of the music industry. It was our first time and we kind of focused on the XP music conference and on the different elements of the female topics that we’re trying to develop and address. IMS was great for networking we and the best part was that it was a great platform to answer all these questions that people have about the Middle East, about XP, about Saudi. And there were a lot of misconceptions that it was a great opportunity to answer. We were very grateful for IMS to give us the opportunity. We have partnered with She Said So, they’re focusing on women’s initiatives around the world and increasing that number, it was a great platform to for us to present what we’re doing as part of as part of the company and explain.”

I wanted to know more about the misconceptions:

“What are the common misconceptions? I will say about mostly about women. I think I would say there’s not a lot of outlets maybe that has the right or correct information. So, for example, women’s education; can they be in the music industry, can they be musicians, can women work? I guess this kind of misconceptions that we’re able to answer.”

I think we got over that misconception, I think it we have started to kind of shift the narrative, I think that IMS is a starting point but us as a company, we are starting to do that.

Shifting that narrative is also one of the motivations behind XP, as Nada explains:

“When we started last year, it was our first and we had a lot of questions and information, there’s a lot of [people] that were in Saudi for the first time. So we had a great initiative, the cultural hotline, where we got people together and we answered all the questions. And the best part was that people who came, we have around 150 speakers from 26 countries, they all had a great experience, and all were like organic advocates to MDLBeast, and they all went back with a great experience. I think it’s a two-way conversation. All the things that we’re doing is basically for the youth, for the music and for the love of music. And also, we’re trying to be at these kinds of events where we have this kind of conversation and dialogue.”

As well as importing massive names to Soundstorm, MDL Beast exported Saudi talent to Ibiza’s Café Mambo during IMS.

“Yeah, it was great fun, great opportunity for our two local talents,  Baloo and Birrdperson, they were the first Saudis to play Café Mambo. I think it showed how the Café Mambo owners and the vibe of the island was very welcoming. And it gives that kind of indicator, a great lesson for other cities and places to be more inclusive. And we by being there and exporting talent, it shows like music should be more inclusive now. Yeah, it’s just a wonderful opportunity.”

Back to XP and Nada is understandably keen to expand on last December’s achievements at XP and its development.

“We had great international speakers and honestly, our main focus was to have a 50:50 ratio when it comes to speakers, we had almost like 40:60% female and male and we’re aiming this year to have a 50:50 ratio during the day. We had a great a program that contained workshops, panels, keynotes from different topics and the main elements, it’s kind of addressing the separate opportunities we have here in the region to build infrastructure. We have a lot to develop, but what we’re trying to do is not to catch up on what things we’re missing [but] to innovate; what’s the next industry looking like? So, the best part about it is it covers region’s opportunity and what the region needs? Also, what are the challenges that the world is facing and how can you solve it? There are some things in music industry that we all around the world have the same challenges, whether in representation, whether it’s sustainability, whether in wellness and mental health and also technology.”

“All these topics are reflected this year, we’re excited to launch the second edition, which is going to be from the 28th to the 30th of November. Soundstorm is ging to follow XP from 1st to 3rd December. This year where we’re focusing a lot on innovation and bringing that kind of main element to the festival, we’re planning to engage more audience to, to pitch their ideas that could develop the industry. Also from last year, we did XP in old warehouses where the regional and local events or brands took over and where they were able to showcase their sounds and their curation. this year we’re aiming to expand on the genres when it comes to the sounds and music and I guess we’re aiming for more kind of solid networking sessions and expansion on the program, we have different new formats that we’re introducing this year.”

It’s apparent that XP is an extended learning platform, taking what MDLBeast are keen to learn and sharing it for the region:

As a company organiser, we are capturing all the learnings from the world and we are applying it, whether in our festivals or in our organisation ourselves. So, for example, diversity, this is something that the MDLBeast is very focused on whether you work in you work in the company or as an audience. Also, sustainability is a key element in our in our events. Also, we do different initiatives when it comes to this, whether if it’s ensuring the festivals are a safe space; We have an initiative called Respect and Reset and this is something that MDL Beast is endorsing and it’s ensuring that everyone is safe at the festival. We also just launched an initiative about ear health, something we’re also we’re endorsing.

I ask if they think the safe spaces initiative is something that can move from the festival into general society:

“Yes, 100%. I think whether it’s in the festival or in whatever we do or communicate, I think we have a great advantage that we have a lot of youth followers and we do need to influence them in a positive way. So whether it’s in our communication or in our events, it’s for them to take it and implemented in their communities and societies. Like, you know, Saudi has two thirds of its population under 35, so it is a great opportunity and an advantage where we can influence that. “

I’m keen to learn if MDLBeast has built community outside of the festival, the answer gives an insight into a big shift in how people are starting to experience entertainment in bigger groups.

“We felt this since we started in 2019. Saudi has always been like a private society; all the parties and the celebrations usually were done in houses and private locations. Then we did our first festival, it was like smaller communities that started connecting together, which was wonderful to see, like people from different streets became like one big community. After that there was a few party brands that started developing because it felt like it’s the time; basically, they felt encouraged and excited. Also, after last year’s editions, both XP and Soundstorm we’ve been witnessing, I would say every weekend, a new party brand coming out, it’s just increasing and it’s exciting. It’s great to see this community growing every year and year. Another example, last XP we had different warehouses, each has kind of unique sound. For the first time, the Saudi hip hop community were given a platform and warehouse where they came together and performed, and we witnessed a whole new community coming together.”

With an EDM focus in its first two editions, I’m interested to know whether MDLBeast intends to expand into other genres, probing also for a hint of the 2022 Soundstorm line up. Yes, is the answer but not the slightest hint of who’s headlining this year, save the launch of new initiatives aimed at growing the pool of local creative talent.

There are so many more questions to be asked about a region that is in economic and social transition but we’re not here to delve into the region’s politics, just to see how one organisation is enabling change where it can. When I ask whether there are any political obstacles to what they’re trying to achieve the answer is simple:

“No not at all… as I mentioned, we have a lot of youth and a lot of people who love music. We’re just trying to provide a platform for them to showcase their talent and support them; for them to have the right tools and consider music and entertainment arts as a career.”

A company that puts women front and centre of its operations, that channels best practice from around the globe into a rapidly growing music industry and looks to develop a rich, diverse music industry in a region that sees entertainment as a key element of its transition from an oil-based economy, MDLBeast is a seriously high achiever for its age.