With the hectic run up to Christmas, you just may have missed some of the world’s leading influencers, models and actors jumping on the ‘let’s promote Saudi Arabia!’ brigade last weekend as they posed and partied at MDL Beast, a three day music festival in the country’s capital, Riyadh.
With actors including Ed Westwick, Ryan Phillippe, Armie Hammer, supermodels Joan Smalls and Alessandra Ambrosio, a whole host of successful social media influencers and a line-up including David Guetta and Steve Aoki, MDL Beast was certainly a star-studded event.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that all of the aforementioned stars just happened to attend the festival. Perhaps they wanted some pre-Christmas sunshine, or they just really love David Guetta…right?
Just as with the recent ‘Welcome to Arabia’ campaign, these celebrities attended MDL Beast as paid guests of the Saudi Arabian tourism boards, invited to the Saudi Arabia festival and treated like royalty in exchange for social media posts, complete with hashtags to promote the festival (and by extension, Saudi Arabia tourism).
The point is, of course, to showcase the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a place full of glamour, where, as a Western woman, you will be ‘treated like a queen,’ (Zoya Sakr, 205k followers) and can live a life of luxury while dancing the night away under the desert skies whilst ignoring the grim reality that is often life as a Saudi woman or member of the LGBT+ community.
I have already written extensively about the many problems with influencers promoting Saudi Arabia tourism, and so if you haven’t yet read that article then I suggest you go and do that first before coming back to this one – that way you’ll have a much better idea of Saudi Arabia’s shocking treatment of its own influencers, activists, bloggers and journalists, who are routinely thrown in jail and tortured.
In this article however, I would like to talk more specifically about the Saudi Arabia festival – MDL Beast – itself, and shed some light on Saudi Arabia’s human rights in general, how Saudi women attending MDL Beast were treated in comparison to the Western guests, before examining the motivations behind the Saudi Arabia festival and questioning whether promoting Saudi Arabia tourism is the responsible thing to do as an influencer, and whether it really is the best way to initiate change in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia – Human Rights
When it comes to human rights abuses, few can rival Saudi Arabia. While it is true that some of the laws in Saudi Arabia are changing (such as the ban on female driving being lifted), Saudi Arabia remains one of the most oppressive countries in the world, with the Saudi regime consistently ranking among the ‘worst of the worst’ in Freedom House’s annual survey of political and civil rights.
Not only does Saudi Arabia continue to amputate hands and feet, behead its citizens for committing adultery and sentence people to upwards of 2000 lashes and prison time for something as innocuous as Tweeting, but the Saudi regime also tortures people (despite signing the Convention Against Torture), enslaves migrant workers and continues to discriminate against women and LGBT+ citizens, with homosexuality and ‘crossdressing’ (being transgender) punishable by death.
Despite Western influencers claiming that Saudi Arabia is improving in its treatment of its own citizens, 2018 actually saw a huge crackdown by the Saudi government on peaceful dissidents and human rights activists, including bloggers that wrote about gender equality and freedom of speech. Not only that but executions are on the rise in Saudi Arabia, with 139 people being executed between January and September 2019, some of whom were children when they were arrested and 54 of which were executed for non violent drug crimes.
Moreover, even though bloggers and celebs love to cite the lift on the female driving ban as proof that the Kingdom is changing, we must bear in mind that this is a legal shift rather than a cultural one, and in practice, many Saudi women are still prohibited to drive by their conservative fathers or husbands.
Rana Ahman, Saudi-born women’s rights activist, Tweeted this month that despite the law not requiring women to wear the abaya in Saudi Arabia, Saudi women are ‘forced to wear abaya, some of cities forced them wearing niqab too [sic]’ and Loujain Sultan echoed the fact that legislation does not always equal change, saying of the southern regions in KSA – ‘The law or the government does not exist in those areas. Only the patriarchal system which keeps oppressing women until she dies, get killed or commit suicide’, pointing out that ‘girls in the southern regions are prohibited from using cell phones till this very day in 2019’ (full thread here).
How does she know all this? ‘I was born there and have seen that with my own eyes,’ she says. ‘No one can imagine how bad the situation is there.’
The Reality of MDL Beast For Saudi female Attendees
While it may seem at first as though having a music festival in Saudi Arabia is a huge breakthrough in terms of Saudi culture, the reality is very different. Instagram posts from MDL Beast show female influencers baring their legs, shoulders and midriffs while Saudi women would never be allowed to go out in public revealing so much skin.
In fact, while Western women danced and sung along to the music, Saudi women attempting to do the same were chastised, with more than 120 people being arrested for breaking public decency laws, which include ‘wearing inappropriate clothes’ and ‘public displays of affection,’ things that the Western guests with tourist visas seemed to get away with with no problems.
Rana Ahman was outraged. ‘They enjoy their freedom here, while Saudi women are suffering and watching!’ she wrote on Twitter. ‘It’s really the worst feeling that you can’t be free and treated differently just because you’re a Saudi [woman]!’
Having to dress modestly and refrain from dancing weren’t the only downsides to attending MDL Beast as a woman. To date, 88 people have been arrested on harassment charges after female festival-goers complained on social media that they were victims of sexual harassment at the festival, with one woman saying ‘I hated the crowd. The level of sexual harassment at the concert was just ridiculous, like so ridiculous.’
Another video posted to Rana’s Twitter account shows a Saudi man filming himself walk through the crowds at the festival and groping unsuspecting women. Yet another video shows a Saudi man saying ‘She take off the abaya and danced, and don’t want anyone to harassing her? That’s a new thing. She take off the abaya and don’t want me to touch her?!‘
All this, and yet not one influencer has addressed any of these issues. Sofia Resing (pictured below), referred to MDL Beast as an ‘epic and historical weekend’ due to the fact that ‘men and women enjoyed a festival together,’ despite the fact that so many women were victims of sexual assault, arrested for dancing, or forced to wear abayas while Western women flaunted their bodies in various states of undress.
I guess when you spend the entire festival in a cushy VIP area, the reality is sometimes difficult to see.
Promoting Saudi Arabia Tourism – The Ethics
Since Western influencers begun promoting Saudi Arabia, their general attitude has been that: if we never visited places with problems then we would never visit anywhere and the best way to incite positive change in Saudi Arabia is by promoting Saudi Arabia tourism, thus opening the country up to other cultures and attitudes.
The former belief is clearly upheld by actor Ryan Phillippe, as he so eloquently said in response to criticism directed at him: ‘If you used your infantile logic, no one should live or go anywhere. Grow up. It’s funny to me tool. You think I really care.’
Now, besides the fact that Phillippe clearly has the emotional maturity level of a three year old, I have a few issues with the claim that criticising Saudi Arabia tourism means that you shouldn’t travel anywhere because nowhere is perfect.
First things first, there is a difference between not being perfect and being Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom may have its flaws, but at least I won’t be stoned to death if I get raped, so there’s that.
What’s more, this tone deaf argument completely misses that point – nobody is saying that we shouldn’t visit Saudi Arabia as a tourist. Where you travel is your business, and if the idea of travelling somewhere as repressive as Saudi Arabia appeals to you, then you do you. The issue lies in the fact that these influencers are being paid by Saudi Arabia to promote the Kingdom.
What they see is controlled, where they go is controlled, who they meet is controlled and the content they create is controlled, at least implicitly (you think these influencers would dare to say anything negative about Saudi Arabia when Saudi bloggers languish in jail for doing just that?).
None of these influencers are saying anything about human rights in Saudi Arabia, nor are they showing us an accurate representation of travel to Saudi Arabia. Thus, not only are their posts fluff content that do nothing to help anyone actually plan a trip to Saudi Arabia, but they are failing to highlight any of the negatives about the country, instead choosing to boast about how luxurious the hotels are and how they are being treated like royalty.
The influencers say that the only way to incite positive change within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is by going there and having some sort of cultural exchange (not entirely sure how much cultural exchange you get by talking to a receptionist in a 5-star hotel but there you go), but does promoting Saudi Arabia really do the country any good?
While it seems as though the Saudi regime is relaxing, we must remember that the Saudi government are not dumb. They know that in order for any Saudi Arabia tourism campaign to be successful, they need to at least pay lip service to the idea that the KSA is moving into the 21st century.
The colossal influence that these social media stars have is being leveraged by the Saudi regime in order to boost the Saudi economy and bolster its global image. It is no coincidence that these campaigns have all taken place after the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi (who ironically was pushing for positive change in the Kingdom), which caused the KSA to attract a lot of negative publicity worldwide.
However, having a cinema and a music festival don’t seem like such great achievements when we take into account that women still need the permission of a male guardian to even exist a domestic abuse shelter. This means that in the case of a woman fleeing domestic abuse, her abuser can keep her from ever leaving the walls of the women’s shelter, even to work, attend class etc. She can remain a prisoner or go back to the hands of her abuser.
Let me also remind you of the fact that LGBT people are killed for simply existing, and denouncing Islam carries the death penalty also.
Freedom of speech, religion, sexuality and gender expression do not exist in Saudi Arabia, so excuse me if the launch of an EDM festival doesn’t make me want to jump for joy, and PROMOTING it while these things continue to occur just tells the government that they don’t have to change a damn thing because influencers are going to continue pushing out Saudi propaganda regardless.
Models Martha Hunt and Emily Ratakowski have both revealed that they were actually asked to attend the MDL Beast festival but refused to go on moral grounds.
Hunt took to Instagram with her opinion, saying ‘I stand in solidarity with the repressed people of Saudi Arabia and refused to be used as a campaign to cover up those suffering from injustice,’ while Ratakowski, in addition to wanting to show her support for ‘the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press,’ said that she hopes that speaking out about her reasons for not attending ‘brings more attention to the injustices happening there.’
In my opinion, both women have got it spot on. Hunt absolutely right in saying that with their proclamations that Saudi Arabia is a wonderful place where women get treated like queens, these influencers simply ‘cover up those suffering from injustice,’ rather than drawing attention to the plight of those mistreated in the Kingdom.
Ratakowski has also hit the nail on the head by saying that she hopes her refusal to attend and comments will draw more attention to the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. At the end of the day, it is not beautiful selfies in the desert that will free the activists being tortured in jail. If anything will free these people, it will be global outrage and an absolute refusal by all celebrities and influencers to take pay checks for propaganda.
Saudi Arabia is desperate for tourism. It doesn’t want it. It needs it.
If we, as bloggers, influencers and celebrities, stood up together and refused to promote Saudi Arabia tourism until things really do change, Saudi Arabia would have no choice but to listen.
As long as we continue to ignore the injustices because Ryan Phillippe ‘had a magical day with wonderful people,’ nothing will change.