Taking place amid heightened tensions between the regional
enemies, the event was promoted as cultural dialogue but also
allowed the kingdom a subtle dig at Tehran, with Saudi-owned MBC
Persia airing the concerts for Iranian viewers.
The concerts in the al-Ula desert site were among the last big
public events in Saudi Arabia before authorities imposed a
virtual lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.
They featured two of Iran's most celebrated singers, Ebi and
Leila Forouhar, alongside stars like Sasy, Arash and Andy.
"Never. I never thought one day I would be able to sing in Saudi
Arabia ... but I'm very, very happy that I'm here," Ebi, who
flew in from Los Angeles, told Reuters.
Some of the performers have previously attracted scorn from
Iranian authorities, including for some overtly political tunes,
and their Saudi tour drew criticism on social media.
"If someone goes and sings in Saudi Arabia, which is the symbol
of hostility (against Iran) and the direct source of many
problems of Iranians, the most polite word to describe this
person is 'traitor'," tweeted one user.
Ebi, whom fans describe as "Iran's Frank Sinatra", sang in
Farsi, drawing applause from a dancing crowd of Saudis and
invited Iranian guests that only partially filled the
He dedicated one song to women, including two bandmates on
stage: "I wish one day the ladies in my country are allowed to
perform on a stage."
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Saudi Arabia has enacted social reforms to open up the conservative
Muslim kingdom, including allowing concerts and letting women drive
and enter sports stadiums.
Yet it remains locked in a decades-long rivalry with Iran that has
played out in regional conflicts.
Asked about the concerts' political undertone, performers and
attendees said they preferred to focus on the tunes.
"I try not to get so much involved into the politics," said
Swedish-Iranian pop singer Arash. "This is not my work, my work is
to make people happy."
Wisam Kabli, a 30-year-old consumer goods importer from Jeddah, said
he came to learn something new and that geopolitics should be set
aside at least for an evening.
"Music doesn't know language, doesn't know religion, doesn't know
country," he said.
(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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