Saudi’s diverse cultural calendar is full of surprises
From nomads and flower men to pop-rock bands and techno DJs, all walks of life are shaping the cultural scene in the Kingdom
The largest country in the Middle East, Saudi is divided into 13 provinces, each characterised by its own unique culture. In 2019, the country opened its arms to the world, welcoming visitors and inviting them to explore the country’s vibrant cityscapes and zen retreats – and its action-packed calendar of events.
Art in AlUla: contemporary collections, installations and sell-out concerts
Threaded throughout the cultural calendar, AlUla Moments is a series of festivals, running from January to December, hosted in one of Saudi’s most intriguing locations. AlUla, in the Madinah province, is a living museum that holds thousands of years of human history, a story told through the preserved tombs, ancient dwellings and monuments of Dadan, capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite kingdoms, and the Nabataean city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.
The seven-week AlUla Arts festival, beginning mid-February, is an exciting time to visit. The juxtaposition of antiquity and contemporary art is striking. Gigantic outdoor art installations stand against a mountainous desert backdrop and curated collections are displayed at Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building (maraya means mirror in Arabic), surreal in situ, reflecting the surrounding natural beauty.
A multi-purpose space, Maraya also functions as a concert hall. One Republic and John Legend are among the headline acts performing in November 2022, another buzzing month in the AlUla Moments programming.
The AlUla Moments calendar concludes with the Winter at Tantora music and arts festival, running from 21 December 2022 to 21 January 2023, promising intimate performances by acclaimed musicians, as well as theatrical performances and fashion shows.
Light up your life at Noor Riyadh
Transforming the capital into a dazzling night-time gallery without walls, Noor Riyadh 2022 is a citywide annual festival harnessing the power of light and art. Running from 3 to 19 November 2022, the event will illuminate the capital with more than 120 installations by some 100 international and local artists from more than 40 countries.
With the theme ‘We Dream of New Horizons’, installations can be seen across 40 locations in the city, tripling the footprint of the inaugural festival in 2021, and making it the largest of its kind in the world.
World-renowned artists such as teamLab, Daniel Buren, Douglas Gordon and Alicja Kwade will be joined by Saudi talent including Muhannad Shono, Ayman Zedani, Sarah Brahim and Ahaad Alamoudi. The diverse forms of light art on show include immersive site-specific installations, monumental public artworks, ephemeral sculptures, art trails and drone shows.
Noor Riyadh will be accompanied by a three-month art exhibition, called ‘From Spark to Spirit’, taking place from now until 4 February 2023 at JAX 03 in Riyadh. Curated by Neville Wakefield and Gaida AlMogren, it explores themes such as the ‘Technologies of Light’, ‘Architectonics of Light’ and ‘Consciousness of Light’.
Raving in Riyadh where history meets modernity
Forward-facing Riyadh is layered onto its centuries-old history, which can be appreciated in Al Masmak Fortress, standing strong since 1865, and Souq Al Zal, as colourful and vibrant today as it was when it opened in 1901. As Saudi’s thriving capital and entertainment hub, it’s also home to one of the biggest, loudest and coolest raves the country has ever seen.
MDLBEAST Soundstorm returns to Riyadh from 1 to 3 December. Launched in 2019, more than 200 artists performed for record crowds of more than 700,000 revellers at the music festival last year. Confirmed headliners this year include Bruno Mars, Post Malone, DJ Khaled, Wizkid, Marshmello, David Guetta, DJ Snake, Carl Cox and Solomun, who’ll perform alongside an impressive lineup of local Saudi female DJs, from Biirdperson and Cosmicat, to Kayan and Solskin. Few events represent the modernity of this metropolis more.
Meet the flower men of Arabia in Asir
The province of Asir is home to a national park, Saudi’s highest mountain and one of the country’s most fascinating communities. Known as ‘flower men’, male Qahtani tribe members wear floral garlands on their heads in a nod to the health benefits afforded by nature.
Now residing on the foothills of the Asir mountains, during the Ottoman Empire, to protect themselves from invasion, the Qahtani tribe lived in the ‘hanging village’ of Al Habala. At that time, it was only accessible by rope ladders (habala means rope in Arabic). Right up until the Eighties, they remained there self-sufficiently, surviving off their land and limited livestock.
Now, the abandoned Al Habala is accessible to tourists by cable car, and in the nearby village of Rijal Almaa, there’s an annual 20-day Flowerman Festival held each August to uphold the Qahtani tradition of performing folk music and dances. A light show and handicraft market add to the extravaganza – and, of course, the most prized souvenir is a crown of flowers.
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