- Abeer Balubaid is Saudi Arabia’s first professional female pianist, rising at a time the kingdom is taking baby steps toward cultural reforms.
- But can she — and the students she’s training to follow in her stead — truly break free of the social shackles that continue to bind women in the country?
A half-filled auditorium with socially distanced audience members was buzzing as Al Farabi, a local band, played in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, a few months ago. Then, another musician was welcomed to join them. The only woman onstage, she sat at the piano and began to play, her face hidden by a fierce mane that danced as her hands flitted across the keys. The songs were her compositions — one a sentimental melody and the other a sassy number with a Latin jazz vibe. Abeer Balubaid — the kingdom’s first professional female pianist — had arrived.
The venue for that performance, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, is a grand structure in the middle of the desert, dedicated to building art, culture, science and innovation. It’s a crucible of creativity where Saudi Arabia’s long-hidden artists come together, engage and grow as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the country’s economy to reduce its dependence on oil over the next decade.
Her country is trying to get there, but the 30-year-old Balubaid already wears multiple hats. A passionate painter since she was a child, her studio is filled with her work. Some of her paintings can be seen on the walls of the old city in Jeddah, and she’s getting offers from Italy and Lebanon to exhibit. And Balubaid studied architecture in college, but it’s music that’s always been her first love. When she began to listen to classical music at the age of 14, she knew she wanted to pursue the piano professionally.
I’m living the change.
At the time, her family dissuaded her because there was no scope for her to perform in Saudi Arabia. “Instead, my father bought me a piano, designed a music room for me and I began to learn on my own,” says Balubaid. It was the start of a journey that 16 years later has turned her into an icon in a fast-changing country. “To be hailed as the country’s first professional female pianist is a very big responsibility,” she says.
Indeed, being a trailblazer in Saudi Arabia can be tricky. MBS (as the crown prince is called) has tried to portray himself as a reformer who is opening up the ultraconservative country to everything from music concerts to greater rights for women. Yet critics have pointed out that some in the oil-rich nation are actually spending big bucks on getting Western influencers to help shape that public opinion. And while the country has undeniably relaxed some of its rigid norms for women, activists who demand — instead of just taking what’s given to them — can end up in trouble. Loujain al-Hathloul, the activist who fought for years to get women the right to drive — granted in 2019 — was sentenced to a five-year prison term in 2020, ostensibly for relations with foreign organizations inimical to Riyadh. She was released in February but is barred from speaking to the media.
Still, the cracks are widening in the old Saudi orthodoxy that effectively made it impossible for women to shine publicly in music, Balubaid suggests. “A lot of musicians have emerged out of nowhere since Vision 2030,” she says. “I was shocked. I’m living the change.”
Growing up, music was not seen as a career option. She took up architecture instead at Jeddah’s Effat University. “I was miserable,” she recounts. “I felt like there was a hole inside me.”
Balubaid continued to learn on her own and play whenever she could, performing at talent shows in universities or just jamming for fun. In parallel, she worked on projects as an architect, until her father died two years ago. “I stopped doing everything,” she says, except painting, which has always been her medium of expression when angry or overcome by pain.
But music called. Sawsan Al Bahiti, the kingdom’s first professional opera singer, reached out to Balubaid a few months after her father’s passing and convinced her to perform together at a café. “Very few people can do what she does … the way she plays. Her passion shows,” says Al Bahiti.
For that performance with Al Bahiti, Balubaid picked Andrea Bocelli’s Time to Say Goodbye, and classics like Parla Piu Piano and Schubert’s Serenade in D minor. “I was excited for the first time in a long time,” Balubaid remembers. The operatic show was her first public performance, and she wore a golden mask in keeping with the flavor of the performance — à la Phantom of the Opera. It was a success, and soon Balubaid was getting invited to perform at the country’s largest cultural festivals. Initially, she continued wearing the mask to cover her stage fright as she performed in front of thousands of people.
A few shows later though, a confident Balubaid ditched the mask, embracing her growing popularity through performances at two Riyadh season cultural festivals.
Balubaid is using that rising name recognition to also prepare the next generation of Saudi pianists. She teaches school-age students, and her pride in their talent is evident. One boy, she mentions, is just 9 and plays Beethoven like a pro. “I don’t know where he learned that from!” she exclaims.
Not that she’s put her own ambitions aside. Already a star as a performer in Saudi Arabia, she wants to release her own compositions and travel the world, collaborating with other musicians. “Abeer’s experiences have made her a stronger woman,” says Aman Almuhanna, a close friend. “I see her making it big globally.”
Right now, Balubaid is experimenting with jazz and completing a three-month certificate program from a Riyadh institute. When we spoke, she was composing a ragtime jazz piece with hints of Arabic music. “In jazz, you can improvise, express yourself,” she says. “It’s different, I feel the moment, I’m here.”
She is indeed, and her moment has just started.