A Week in Middle East Feels Like a Youthquake of Positive Vibes and Monumental Cultural Change

This week sees dance music fest Soundstorm in Riyadh, the Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, and the Soccer World Cup in Qatar.

Photo by Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for MDLBEAST SOUNDSTORM

There’s a dance music fest this week in Riyadh with 730,000 attendees headlined by Bruno Mars, who also lit up the opening night of the second annual Red Sea International Film Fest, and Sharon Stone is in Jeddah talking about her vagina.

If Variety news reports from RSIFF are scrambling your preconceived notions about film fests, the Middle East, Saudi Arabian culture and American showbiz stars, you aren’t alone in what the head doctors might call “positive disequilibration.”

The famed Cannes Croisette has been replaced in Variety dispatches by the Jeddah Corniche, and Oscar winners in attendance this year such as Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, the latter serving as the fest’s jury president, are standing side by side with such global cinema luminaries as honorees Shah Rukh Khan of India and Egypt’s legendary actor-singer Yousra. For every Western directing luminary such as Guy Ritchie there appears to be an Eastern helmer such as Shekhar Kapur, the director of the fest’s opening night film, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” who buoyantly celebrated the RSIFF’s quick rise by noting “The winds need to change. For too long, the winds have come from the West to the East. Somewhere in the desert sands of this nation, the winds need to rise again.”

What Kapur is signaling and what’s clear to the bounty of journalists, filmmakers and cineastes in attendance, a large slice of whom are visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, is that even in its infancy RSIFF is staking a place on the global film calendar as perhaps the most naturally and intensely diverse competitive film festival anywhere. In opening the fest, Oliver Stone noted all of the countries of origin for the RSIFF official competition, and the 16-film lineup was a bracing mix of film countries of The East, long underrepresented in American and Western European festivals.

In Jeddah, they’re front and center.

Red Sea Film Festival opening ceremony Courtesy of Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for the Red Sea Film Festival

All of this happens against the backdrop of mind-bending cultural changes in Saudi Arabia, including one especially noteworthy for Hollywood industry watchers: the explosive growth of the cinema exhibition industry. Yes, read that again: EXHIBITION GROWTH.

The phenomenon unleashed by the relaxing of prohibitions against public moviegoing has put The Kingdom at the top of the MidEast territories. After doubling revenues in the pandemic years of 2020 to 2021, the country is still on pace to be a billion-dollar market by 2030.

Which brings us back to Mr. Mars and the live music phenomenon known as MDLBEAST Soundstorm. In three years, the dance music festival has become one of the key dates on the global beats fest calendar. Co-headlining with DJ Khaled and Post Malone, Mars was able to pop into Jeddah long enough to amp up an already giddy fest crowd, ears on Mars and eyes on screens showing the World Cup matches down the MidEast road in Qatar. The Saudi team’s win over Argentina on Nov. 22 was still a topic of pride and conversation nine days later.

Guy Ritchie, Mohammed Al Turki at Red Sea Opening Night Gala (Courtesy of Getty Images Entertainment)

In preparation for Soundstorm, the Palestinian-American Khaled spoke to a young audience of aspiring musicians at the XP Music Futures Conference in Riyadh, and his message wouldn’t have sounded out of place at a Young Republicans rally in Charleston: “I knew that with hard work I could do anything. I don’t compete with nobody. I compete with myself. I ask myself how can I be better every single day? It is as simple as you have to believe in yourself. And if you are saying that, eventually other people will start to believe in you too.”

In Jeddah, it’s not impossible to find the Festival Fizz i.e. booze that journos and film fans have relied on for decades to get through the more dour “serious” movies on tap, but with so much “positive disequilibration” in the air here, one strolls the corniche very much on a natural high, ready to confront the next crashing cultural cliché that change has made irrelevant, ready to encounter the next exciting cinema discovery out here, about as far from Hollywood and The Past as one showbiz veteran might wander.