It would have been unimaginable just one-year-ago: A three-day-long music festival headlined by international acts including Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta, and the Black Eyed Peas; the facilitation of tourist visas to thousands; men and women mixing together in public; and female race car drivers zipping along the outskirts of Riyadh. Indeed, it wasn’t that long ago when women and men couldn’t sit together in cafés, go to the cinema, or attend a concert, which makes the inaugural Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix nothing short of historic.
The three-day festival of motorsport, music, and culture unfolded around the roads of Diriyah, a Northwestern town situated in the outskirts of Saudi’s capital, on December 13-15. It featured 22 drivers from 11 countries, who took part in a 45-minute race around the 2.5km Riyadh street circuit, with Portugal’s Antonio Felix Da Costa coming up victorious in the opening race. But the real winners of Saturday’s historic race were the Saudi men and women, who helped usher in the beginning of an exciting and new era in the kingdom.
In the past two years, the ultra-conservative country has undergone a major transformation in line with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030. The social and economic blueprint, helmed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, will allow Saudi Arabia to diversify from a reliance on oil and move towards a more modernized, tourist-friendly future.
In an effort to further bolster tourism, for the first time ever, the Gulf country launched a new visitor visa system, entitled Sharek, dedicated to welcoming international tourists for such events. The visa system was introduced for the inaugural Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix via online application for when visitors purchased their Formula E tickets. This resulted in thousands of tourists, hailing from all around the globe, who all flew in specifically for the event.
In addition to the races, the Formula E featured a series of concerts headlined by international acts. The concerts were kicked off by American singer Jason Derulo, who surprised fans by debuting a new song. “Since we are in Saudi Arabia I want to do things a little different. My mother taught me to never visit empty handed, so my gift to Saudi Arabia is the debut performance of my new song” he told the crowd. Despite the nonstop pouring of rain, concert-goers happily stuck around for the country’s first music festival, enjoying performances from Egyptian pop sensation Amr Diab and the Black Eyed Peas who also took to the stage of Ad Diriyah’s UNESCO Heritage site to belt their discography in their first concerts in Saudi Arabia.
The final day of the concerts saw OneRepublic perform as well as David Guetta, who had the whole crowd on their feet when he mixed popular Saudi songs into his set. “Long Live Salman”, a song dedicated to the nation’s Crown Prince, particularly got the audience moving.
Among the guests at the star-filled event was HH Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE’s Armed Forces. “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and the support of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, is steadily and confidently surging ahead in its race to the future,” he stated about the event.
Also present was Aseel Al-Hamad, the first female member of the Saudi Arabian motorsport federation. The car enthusiast, who celebrated the end of the decades-long driving ban in the Kingdom by driving a Formula 1 vehicle in the streets, believes that the races could inspire a whole generation of Saudi women to become involved in all aspects of motorsports.
It seems that it already has. The inaugural Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix, which took place just six months after the landmark decree of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud brought Saudi women into the driver’s seat, saw several female race-car drivers participating in a Formula E test session, including Emirati race-car driver Amna Al Qubaisi.