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Glittery party spotlights Saudi era of 'extreme openness'

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Riyadh (AFP)

It was billed as the Middle East's biggest party -- thousands of revellers bathed in flashing laser lights danced and swayed to blasting music in the unlikeliest of venues: Saudi Arabia.

The three-day MDL Beast last weekend was the biggest festival ever hosted by the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom -- where hardliners have long branded music as sinful -- as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pursues a taboo-busting modernisation drive.

Touted by some as Saudi Arabia's Woodstock, it was not just a lineup of global DJs -- from South Africa's Black Coffee, Dutch star Martin Garrix, and France's David Guetta -- that tested the limits of the kingdom's cultural revolution.

On the barren desert plot near Riyadh that was transformed into what seemed like an open-air nightclub, women -- many unveiled and sporting glittery face paint and some even shedding their obligatory abaya robes -- danced alongside men.

Also turning heads in a country notorious for gender segregation and an austere dress code was a female aerialist in a figure-hugging leotard, shimmying up a rope in a balloon-shaped cage.

Suspended in mid-air over a crowd was a sloshing glass pool with four female aquatic dancers doing synchronised acts in skin-tight attire.

- 'Everything has changed' -

Just last year, the head of General Entertainment Authority (GEA) was fired after a conservative backlash against a circus featuring women wearing similar costumes.

But that seems like a distant memory.

"We grew up with mutawa (religious police) warning us: 'A good man prays, does not party, does not listen to music'," Saleh al-Najar, a 30-year-old information technology worker, said over the din of revelry.

"Now everything has changed."

Promoting the extravaganza were a slew of skin-baring celebrities and Instagram "influencers", including Victoria's Secret Angel Elsa Hosk and British supermodel Jourdan Dunn.

They provoked scathing online criticism, including from other top influencers, for allegedly accepting "six-figure" sums to help rehabilitate the kingdom's image amid scrutiny of its human rights record.

The over-the-top revelry is part of what observers call cultural shock therapy by Prince Mohammed, who appears bent on dragging the austere kingdom into modernity.

The once unimaginable liberalisation drive, pushing a new era of openness while de-emphasising religion and promoting ultra-nationalism, has introduced glitzy concerts, magic shows and sporting extravaganzas with thumping after parties.

Multiple shops and restaurants in Riyadh openly defy the once-mandatory prayer time shutdown, staying open even when the now-toothless religious police drive around exhorting people to pray.

Western officials say the government is considering allowing alcohol in some expat pockets such as Riyadh's diplomatic quarter, home to foreign embassies, in what they call a test balloon that could extend to other tourist hubs in the kingdom.

Saudi authorities furiously deny the reports, but observers say the kingdom's new tourism push could falter if does not follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Dubai or Bahrain where alcohol is permitted in licensed venues.

"The way to fight extremism is through extreme openness," said 30-year-old driver Murtada al-Abawi, who endorses the cultural changes.

- 'Whitewash' -

Not everyone is supportive, however.

Last month, a Yemeni national wounded four Spanish nationals when he went on a stabbing spree during a live theatre performance in Riyadh

Saudi state media pinned the blame on Al-Qaeda, but so far there has been no claim of responsibility from the group and observers point at burbling resentment among arch-conservatives in the kingdom over the multi-billion dollar entertainment push.

In a country steeped in conservatism, some Saudis have blamed a lack of rainfall in the kingdom on the "sinful" embrace of entertainment.

Earlier this year, campaigners reported the arrest of religious scholar Omar al-Muqbil after he criticised the General Entertainment Authority for "erasing Saudi society's original identity".

"It's not just Islamists criticising the entertainment push," said Quentin de Pimodan, a Saudi expert at the Institute for European and American Studies.

"There appears to be a self-appointed vigilante community online keen to protect Saudi values."

GEA chief Turki al-Sheikh courted criticism after he suggested Saudis struggling financially could take on credit card debt to fund entertainment activities.

Critics say loosening social strictures is a diversionary tactic to make citizens more acquiescent and blunt public frustration over an economic downturn and an intensifying crackdown on dissent.

"Of course I want my country to open up. Of course I want art and sports to be allowed," said Lina al-Hathloul, whose jailed sister Loujain is currently on trial along with other women activists.

"But unfortunately these reforms are not institutional and are glitter to whitewash human rights violations, including my sister's unlawful detention."

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