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

FILE PHOTO: United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi gestures during an interview with Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2022. REUTERS/Abdel Hadi Ramahi/File Photo

UAE and Kenya complete Cepa negotiations

The UAE and Kenya have completed negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (Cepa) between the two countries. It is the 12th Cepa deal secured by the UAE and its third in Africa, after agreements were signed last year with Mauritius and the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). “The UAE-Kenya Cepa will not only boost […]

Adnoc has bid for German polymer manufacturer Covestro but its offers €55 and €57 per share were rejected

Adnoc faces hurdles in completing ambitious European deals

Abu Dhabi state oil company Adnoc is facing challenges to a duo of major European deals it is trying to get over the finish line, according to media reports. Talks with Austrian energy group OMV have been put on hold to allow parties to navigate a series of disagreements, the Financial Times reported on Friday. […]

The 450 companies operating at Dubai Science Park include AstraZeneca, and the free zone plans to add 200,000 sq ft of lab and office space

Dubai Science Park reveals expansion plans

Dubai’s biotechnology free zone is adding 60 percent more offices, laboratories and warehouses over the next few years to cater for an influx of new companies, its senior vice-president told AGBI.  Dubai Science Park, part of Dubai-listed Tecom Group, is planning an expansion of 200,000 sq ft of additional storage and logistics facilities at the […]

A worker at a phosphate production plant in Metlaoui, Tunisia. Phosphate accounts for 15% of Tunisia's exports

Saudi Arabia loans $55m for Tunisian rail renewal

Saudi Arabia has signed a $55 million loan deal with Tunisia to finance the renewal of the North African country’s rail network.  The railway is used to transport phosphate, a sector that makes up around 4 percent of Tunisia’s GDP and 15 percent of the country’s exports. Tunisia plans to produce eight million tonnes by […]