Skip to content Skip to Search
Skip navigation

Opera hits the high notes as Saudi’s latest cultural attraction

Riyadh opera SPA
Riyadh's international opera festival sold 2,000 tickets a night, according to the Ministry of Culture’s Music Commission
  • 2,000 Riyadh attendees a night
  • Jeddah planning opera house
  • Artists visit en route to Australia

Anyone for opera? There was a time when the last place you would expect a serious answer to this question would have been Riyadh. 

But after Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli’s landmark performance in Alula last year, the sky’s the limit for musical tastes of all types as Saudi Arabia strives to develop a cultural profile that was once unthinkable. 

This month international opera, musical and soul singers such as Sarah Brightman, Michael Ball, Vittorio Grigolo and Eurielle took part in a three-day international opera festival in Riyadh, selling out 2,000 tickets each night. Saudi singer Reemaz Oqbi also took part.

Daniel Goldberg, co-founder of regional events manager Mac Global who helped organise the shows, says it is a sign of how the government is forging ahead with a bold arts policy. 

“Whether it’s bringing in a full symphony orchestra to accompany a film, or whether we’re doing an opera festival or a jazz festival, our job is to enable what they’re doing and bring in the talent to inspire the next generation,” Goldberg says, referring to orchestral film showings of Harry Potter and Star Wars films, which his company have recently staged for the Royal Commission for Riyadh City.

 “It’s a very big and young country. Their job is to stimulate growth in the arts and as a partner we help deliver that mission.” 

Mac Global has been working with the ministry of culture and the Royal Commission for Riyadh City to bring international artists from the world of opera and musical theatre to a country where the religious police – whose powers were trimmed in 2016 – for long even prevented music being played in restaurants. 

An opera house is planned for the Red Sea city of Jeddah. Famed West End and Broadway hit, Phantom of the Opera debuted in October at a concert venue in Riyadh known as The Arena. 

But it is not only opera. Since 2020, MDL Beast – fully owned by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) – has organised an annual dance music festival outside Riyadh called Soundstorm. 

Music, sports and tourism are major pillars of the Vision 2030 development project launched in 2016 with the aim of diversifying the economy away from oil, attracting foreign investment and finding jobs for the growing Saudi population. 

But Goldberg says Mac Global – in which Sony acquired a controlling stake last year – was happy to be focusing on the more high-brow cultural events. 

“That’s where we want to be in the Saudi market, we don’t want to be pushing boundaries too far,” he says. 

Music has become a major industry in the Gulf, with many Western pop stars often taking time to perform in Dubai – Beyonce was reportedly paid $24 million for a one-hour concert earlier this year. 

Goldberg says international artists are starting to see the region as a place where they can tour to several locations. 

“The North American and European touring markets are very mature and established,” he says. “The Middle East is not there yet.

“But if you combine it with Australia it suddenly becomes a lot more attractive if you’re a touring artist. We’re trying to apply those principles to Saudi Arabia as well.”

Until Saudi Arabia develops a national orchestra of its own, though, it will rely on firms like Mac Global to bring them over. 

“The biggest cost for doing big cultural events is the orchestra,” Goldberg says. “You have to fly the whole orchestra in. Then you have to think about the instruments.

“The average musician can bring a violin on a plane but we have to truck in the big instruments from Dubai at the moment.

“To deliver these shows to a high international standard is very costly.”

Latest articles

Saudi sport

Saudi sports push ‘winning global audiences’

Saudi sports investments are winning a global audience as the kingdom tries to overcome charges of “sport washing”, a major survey of media coverage said this month. Media analytics consultancy Carma found that coverage of human rights in Saudi Arabia fell in favour of “a sports-related narrative” around the world, including in the West. The […]

Gas flaring at a plant in Veracruz state, Mexico. The country is one of the biggest contributors to global flaring, along with Iran, Iraq and Libya

Iran, Iraq and Libya among worst offenders on gas flaring

Environmentally ruinous flaring of gas at upstream oil and gas facilities has risen to its highest level for five years, despite pledges to end the practice, the World Bank has said. Iran, Iraq and Libya were among the biggest contributors in 2023, according to a World Bank report published on June 20. Along with six […]

Knight Frank predicts that the value of the Saudi Arabia's construction projects will grow to $181.5 billion by the end of 2028

Riyadh dominates Saudi Arabia’s construction market

Riyadh and its surroundings account for nearly 40 percent of the value of existing construction contracts in Saudi Arabia, at US$54 billion, according to new research. The provinces of Mecca – which includes Jeddah – and Tabuk in the north of the kingdom follow the capital region, with $28.7 billion and $28.5 billion in awarded […]

'We need to be extra cautious, but... also opportunistic', says Bahrain FinTech Bay CEO Bader Sater about the country's approach to crypto

Bahrain remains cautious but crypto pursuit advances

Bahrain will not sacrifice its position as a trusted financial centre as it chases cryptocurrency millions, according to the boss of fintech incubator Bahrain FinTech Bay. Earlier this month the kingdom’s central bank gave BitOasis Bahrain, a regional crypto trading platform, a so-called Category 2 crypto-asset services licence. The regulatory approval means that the broker-dealer […]