Saudi Arabia hosts Winter at Tantora music festival

Bathed in light, musicians belt out melodies among pre-Islamic desert ruins in northwestern Saudi Arabia, a heritage trove at the centre of efforts to put the reclusive kingdom on the tourism map.

Hosted by the Al-Ula governorate – where Nabatean tombs and art are chiselled into caramel-hued rock – Winter at Tantora is the latest music carnival in the Islamic kingdom, where such events were unheard of just two years ago.

Spread over eight weekends until February 9, the main events are hosted in an auditorium made of mirrored glass that has drawn international artists, from Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi to French classical violinist Renaud Capucon.

And it shines a spotlight on a long-isolated area seen widely as an open-air museum.

“Saudi Arabia is turning a new page,” banker Zainab al-Kadadi says.

The 29-year-old attended a musical weekend that also included sand dune bashing – an adventure sport that involves driving across challenging desert landscapes – and a tour of an Ottoman-era train station. The festival is seen as a soft opening of Al-Ula, an area roughly the size of Belgium that is being touted as the centrepiece of Saudi attractions, as the petro-state prepares to open up to international tourists.

Building a tourism industry from scratch is at the heart of a government plan to prepare the Arab world’s biggest economy for a post-oil era, an ambition fraught with challenges.

The austere kingdom, which forbids alcohol and has a strict social code, is already seen by many as a hard sell for tourists.

Recent events that drew international censure – notably the gruesome murder last year of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a sweeping crackdown on dissent – appear to have made the challenge more acute. “Saudi has great tourism potential, but after what happened it’s hard to come here and say ‘Everything is wow, everything is amazing’,” said a Westerner who was among a group of global social media influencers invited by the kingdom for an all-expenses-paid trip to Al-Ula.

“When I went to collect my visa, my friends joked, ‘Hope you return alive!’.”

The October 2 murder of Khashoggi, whose body was dismembered by a team of Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate, triggered global outrage.

If Al-Ula were in another country, it would be an easier sell, others in the group suggested.

“The biggest obstacle is stereotypes,” said Kyle Mijlof, a 30-year-old travel photographer from Cape Town.

A liberalisation drive by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, known as MBS, has brought new cinemas, concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

While it is yet to offer tourist visas, the country fast-tracked electronic permits for visitors to attend the festival.

Published in Daily Times, January 21st 2019.