Not far from Riyadh airport, a collection of buildings rise out of a sparse expanse of sand and farms. Mock-castles and tower houses abut expanses of shops, emerging somewhat discordantly from the outskirts of the Saudi capital. Most of the time, they’re roughly as desolate as the desert that surrounds them. But for two weeks a year, the compound buzzes with activity, hosting al-Janadriya, one of the largest and most anticipated festivals in the Arabian Peninsula.
Hosted under the patronage of the Saudi National Guard, al-Janadriya was first held in 1985. What began, I’m told, as a comparatively modest event, eventually ballooned in size. The pavilions–the bulk of which represent Saudi provinces and branches of the Saudi government–grew into mammoth compounds that could, in other contexts, serve as event venues all on their own. It’s a pleasant, if somewhat overwhelming, cacophony–albeit it one that’s rather well-organized for a gathering that attracts as many as three million visitors. Recreations of the traditional architecture of different parts of the kingdom line the compounds wide boulevards, with copies of homes and landmarks from mountain and coast alike housing markets selling the typical foods and handicrafts of different Saudi provinces. Stages spread throughout the festivals grounds host artists performing traditional Saudi music and dance. Saudis, expats and visitors from outside the country crowd the compound, taking advantage of the pleasant weather–al-Janadriya takes place during the extremely temperate Najdi winter–and enjoying the variety of whats on offer.
It’s a celebration of Saudi culture and identity, but also a show of the diversity that exists across the kingdom. Stereotypes often treat Saudi Arabia as synonymous with wide desert expanses, oil wells and the skyscrapers of Riyadh. Al-Janadriya may be a short drive outside of the Saudi capital, but it attests to how the kingdom is so much more. The variety of traditional desserts–variations on Arab sweets like kleija and ma’amoul–alone borders on the overwhelming; each provincial pavilion hosts different booths selling the sweets, in some cases made in situ from women from the province themselves. The convivial spirit calls to mind a Midwestern state fair–something underlined by the kiosks showcasing and offering different local agricultural specialties like Taifi Rosewater and Jawfi olives.
This isn’t to say that it’s all simply about shopping and singing. The ultimate message of al-Janadriya is rather clear, portraying the country as one that is diverse but united in a single national identity. And, like anything similar anywhere else in the world, it’s undeniably been shaped in part by shifting political and societal trends. Some Saudi contacts noted that al-Janadriya has, at times, driven the ire of some religious hardliners, though royal patronage–in addition to its widespread popularity–has shielded the festival from any real fallout from this. And, in line with wider shifts in policy, restrictions have, indeed, been lifted. This year marked the first al-Janadriya that took place without separate “family” and “singles” days; the shift, organizers say, took place without incident. A profusion of food-trucks reflected Vision 2030-related pushes for entrepreneurship; a designated Uber pick-up spot called to mind the Saudi national investment fund’s various ties with key players in Silicon Valley.
Walking through al-Janadriya, however, politics seemed distant–frequent photos of King Salman and the Crown Prince not withstanding. The analyst in me may have been tempted to contextualize the festival within efforts to shore up and define national identity in the kingdom which, despite its ancient history, only dates back to 1932 in its current form, but that was quashed by the sheer sensory overload of my surroundings. Browsing shops and consuming a marathon of dates, pastries and Arabic coffee, other issues felt deeply distant. In the context of a week and a half of work meetings, the escape was rather refreshing.