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MDL Beast: Women molested at Saudi music festival despite anti-harassment campaigns

Women complain of incidents of sexual harassment, but event organisers say they are 'taking the issue seriously'
Saudi fans attend the first MDL Beast, an electronic music festival held in Banban, on the outskirts of Riyadh, on 19 December 2019 (AFP)
By MEE correspondent in Riyadh

It was Elise Schouten's first time in Saudi Arabia.

The 25-year-old Dutch woman was in Riyadh at the beginning of December to attend MDL Beast Soundstorm, the Gulf kingdom's giant rave held in a remote desert outside the capital.

The event has been lauded as one of the world's biggest music festivals this year. But it has come under renewed criticism over incidents of harassment of women, despite pledges by organisers to combat the abuse. 

Held from 1-3 December, the festival attracted over 730,000 fans and featured diverse music acts, spanning electronic to hip-hop.

Schouten, a lover of electronic music who works at the Dutch embassy in Cairo, had come with her roommate to Riyadh for the weekend to attend Soundstorm. From the time they arrived at the concert, Schouten said, a number of men were shouting and trying to touch them. 

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"I was holding on to my friend as the crowd became denser as we made our way to the stage, and then I felt it three times, someone grab my behind," Schouten told Middle East Eye. "I turned around and shouted and screamed at them, but they didn't stop. Instead, the hand reached for me again."

Failure of anti-harassment campaign

After being criticised in its first two years, in 2019 and 2021, for harassment, MDL Beast organisers took extra steps through their Respect & Reset campaign, and beefed up security and safe dancing zones to prevent sexual and other harassment, particularly targeting women, among its various stages and venues. 

Despite such efforts, after the festival ended and through its next event - MDL Balad Beast, which took place in Jeddah on 9 and 10 December - floods of women who had been harassed in Riyadh took to social media to voice their stories and complaints. 

'As a country that hasn't had these kinds of festivals happening ever before, we need to have an abundance of security trained in dealing with sexual harassment'

- Saudi cultural producer

"I noticed we were surrounded by only guys - there were no girls in sight, and that is when the panic kicked in," Schouten said.

Schouten said she found a security officer and told him what had happened. He asked her to locate the man and he would kick him out. By that time, Schouten had no idea where the man had gone, except back into the sea of people.

"There was no "Are you okay? Are you all right?'" said Schouten. "We stood there for a while before we made our way to the stages. On an unspoken level, we knew this was only going to get worse."

She later filed a complaint with the event management, which responded that a number of suspected harassers were evicted from the event. 

Another incident, which took social media by storm, was recounted by Finnish nurse Erika Milia. 

"Last night was one of the most traumatic experiences I've ever had," she wrote on Instagram. "I've always felt safe and valued as a woman in Saudi, but all of that went out the window last night and big time. Me and my friends were sexually harassed and molested by an outrageous number of men during one of the biggest music festivals in the Middle East."

Both Saudi and foreign women commented on her post, while dozens went to the account of MDL Beast to list their grievances.

'Industry-wide problem'

MDL Beast did make a concerted effort this year to address the issue. Signs with "Respect & Reset" and "Visit our R&R spaces for help with harassment" were publicised on large signs throughout the venues. There was also a designated tent for those who had been harassed.

Organisers said the event "takes this issue seriously, and is dedicated to creating a safe environment where guests' behaviour is respectful and allows everyone to enjoy the festival experience".

In a statement to MEE, they described harassment as "an industry-wide problem", adding: "We are working with all parties for best practices. We will continue to invest and build in combating this problem."

saudi music fest 2019
French violinist Renaud Capucon performs at a Unesco World Heritage Site in northwestern Saudi Arabia on 4 January 2019 (AFP)

The organisers said that they have addressed complaints received during the festival by either "warnings, evictions or blacklisting from future events".

"Safety is a responsibility on everyone, and we ask anyone who has witnessed something or has encountered an incident to report immediately through the official channels," they added.

MDL Beast CEO Ramadan Alharatani said security was increased this year to over 3,800 personnel on site, with around one guard for every 35 guests, while approximately 300 CCTV cameras monitored the festival.

Before Balad Beast in Jeddah this past weekend, crew and DJs were sent a memo reminding them of the resources available to keep everyone safe.

“Harassment remains an issue across the globe," it stated. "We are committed to continuing to address all forms of harassment both at our events and every day. Harassment is not acceptable in any form under any circumstances."

It then listed specific ways to get help if someone were attacked, or witnessed an attack, by calling a manager or a supervisor, or by contacting [email protected]

Need for 'education'

While all these moves are positive, several Saudi women said it all comes down to education.

"I really think MDL Beast has been trying really hard to control it, but I still think, as a country that hasn't had these kinds of festivals happening ever before, we need to have an abundance of security trained in dealing with sexual harassment," a Saudi cultural producer told MEE on condition of anonymity.

"Their efforts are valiant, but the missing ingredient we need is to discuss the issues openly and to educate these men who have had little experience with seeing women dancing in public."

'The missing ingredient we need is to discuss the issues openly and to educate these men who have had little experience with seeing women dancing in public'

- Saudi cultural producer

As she pointed out, the people attending MDL Beast events and who bought the more expensive ticket had fewer experiences of harassment, if any, than those who attended in the General Admission area. "This year, most of my community did not attend MDL Beast after the harassment last year."

This year, the VIP area VIB (Very Important Beast) was connected by a network of elevated walkways that linked stages and led to designated food and beverage areas.

Below, on the ground, was the General Admission area, where most women were who said they had been attacked. 

Very few women could be seen in this category during the early hours of the morning, where throngs of predominantly young Saudi men moved from concert to concert. The sight was akin to a carnival-like, albeit eerie scene, where men donned everything from black and multicoloured face coverings to mask their identity, trippy psychedelic rave glasses and glittery make-up worn by the limited but notable display of queer culture.

Even a few Saudi drag queens made their way through the sea of people, asserting their individuality. Inebriated men tripped through crowds laced with the distinct scent of marijuana. Alcohol is still illegal in Saudi Arabia, as are drugs and homosexuality.

But MDL Beast once again created a space that tested the limits of the kingdom's push for social change.

"I don’t think the security guards know what to do when it comes to this stuff," said the Saudi cultural producer.

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"I've heard lots of stories of security, even the Reset and Respect people, not knowing how to handle situations. Their presence there seems more to combat the fear of harassment rather than deal with it from an educated position when it actually takes place.” 

Large music concerts and mass entertainment would have been unthinkable in the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia until around six years ago, when Crown Prince and now Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman launched Vision 2030, ushering wide sweeping social changes to the country.

Prior to this, no music blared from public concerts, cinemas were banned, and men and women were segregated; mixed-gender dancing, as is seen at MDL Beast today, was illegal.

"We need to educate the people, particularly men, about why treating women like this is not right," said a Saudi female DJ before Soundstorm in Riyadh.

"The issue is never discussed publicly. There is this grey area on what is considered harassment here. It is about victim shaming and blaming the woman. Like, if you were wearing a short skirt, you asked for it! That's how they think, and we need to change this.

"I don't know how we can be an Islamic country yet we don't have these values already instilled in us. It's very difficult to understand and to process," said the cultural producer. "But this is the reality. And if we don't address it, then I am afraid in future events the women who want to go won't go.”

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