This is not a brand new thing, it has been happening for a while, and we need to call out all the influencers who have been hired to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s reputation. These social media celebrities who have been taking endorsed trips to the country, in return, post praise and some appreciation for Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that the price for it is to also ignore the country’s glaring issues with human rights. MDL Beast has focused attention back onto this issue. If you were on Instagram during December, you probably noticed many of the celebrities and influencers that you follow, were having the best time in Saudi Arabia for this festival. These celebrities should be criticised for posting about this alleged ‘cultural revolution’ without even mentioning its crimes against fundamental human rights.
If you are not up-to-date with the situation in Saudi Arabia, that is perfectly okay, let me give you a little run-down. In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated by agents of the Saudi government, a journalist who had previously criticised Saudi Arabia and the Saudi Crown Prince in the Washington Post. Then you also have the human rights abuses including: women fleeing from domestic violence, beheadings and crucifixions, the bombing campaign against Yemen. I mean, you would not find any of these abuses in these highly curated social media posts, and that is why they need these social media influencers to repair the country’s damaged image.
Let me introduce you to Gateway KSA: they are a non-profit organisation that hosts cultural exchanges and on their website they mention they are “looking for the influencers, policymakers and leaders of tomorrow”. Essentially, they are bringing in social media celebrities to Saudi Arabia on all-expense-paid, yet supervised, trips. Not only are they ignoring human rights, but they really push for the orientalism angle, you would think that all there is to the Middle East and Asia are the deserts and magic carpet rides. Orientalism is a way of imagining or exaggerating and distorting the differences of those in the Orient – Arabs, Indians and others – and their culture in comparison to that of Europeans. In Jay Alvarrez’s post, he is featured shirtless in the desert, which does little to illustrate the multi-faceted nature of the country. Again, in Kasey Stewart’s post, there is little focus on the country and most of his pictures are there to promote the desert. For the most part, you will get to see your favourite influencers in grand hotels, in helicopters, diving in the Red Sea and looking at ancient ruins in the desert. All of which leads to the most glowing reviews and appreciation for the progress of the country. They have invested billions of dollars into reconstructing their image in the west and MDL Beast is just their latest campaign.
Source: Instagram, Jay Alvarrez
There have been many criticisms regarding influencers and influencer culture since the opening of foreign tourism in September. MDL Beast was so visible that influencers faced intense backlash, not only for their attendance but their praise for Saudi Arabia. A plethora of influencers were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to pledge their adoration for the country on Instagram. For example, you have actors like Armie Hammer calling the event “a cultural shift”. There were too many people in attendance to give you a full list, but, Neels Visser, Ed Westwick and Alessandra Ambrosio are a few to be named.
Other users are right for criticising influencers for sponsoring a country that they have not fully seen. Instead, the Saudi Arabia they had experienced was one of adventure, designed to distract from the issues the country is currently facing, such as human rights. On the one hand, there is the influencer portrayal of Saudi Arabia, it is all about peaceful desert journeys and enjoying the modernisation of the country through a music festival. On the other hand, there are news reports that demonstrate how migrant workers suffer exploitation, there are crackdowns on dissidents and women barely have any rights. Of course, if they go to Saudi Arabia they will witness some of the tweaks that have been made, especially by and for the younger population; however, that should not be enough for westerners to fondly dote on the country for becoming a liberal state and ignore its fundamentally repressive nature. Some of these influencers are not genuinely considering the ethical dimensions of promoting Saudi Arabia, and it’s poignant in who did and did not attend the MDL Beast Festival, such as Emily Ratajkowski and Sonam Kapoor.
Ratajkowski responded to user @diet_prada that: “It is very important to me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press. I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there”. In her typical tone-deaf response, Kapoor attended the event and responded to the backlash with this post to her story: “Let’s agree to disagree that the whole world is a shithole right now and any positive step forward is something that I want to celebrate. I was treated with immense respect and love as a Hindu, brown female actor”. Has she ever stopped to consider that celebrities can receive preferential treatment? We would all love to sit in the VIP section, but as Kapoor insinuated, the world is simply not perfect like that. Some women spoke out about how they, as brown women in attendance at MDL Beast, were not treated with that same respect and were harassed at the concert. Let’s take it from another angle: she claims to support the rights of the LGBTQ community and still attends a festival in a country where the LGBTQ community are subjected to capital punishment.
This is an important lesson in the dark side of influencer culture: money is prioritised, capitalism comes is prioritised, the individual is prioritised. Do not get me wrong, I love money, but it should not control your life to the point where you cross ethical boundaries. You are privileged if you have a platform to speak on, a lot of the world does not have that same right to freely do so, so you should be ashamed if you can easily overlook these abuses for money. Yes, any form of progress is great, but users on Instagram we need to understand the MDL Beast Festival is actually a facade in the grand scheme of things. Remember to call into question the information that is put in front of you, you should always be informed, do not simply overlook anything as another user yourself, too.
It is profoundly upsetting to witness the people we admire, respect and watch advocate for the rights of others, to rehabilitate a country’s image. This is not advertising; this is propaganda. Jamal Khashoggi was killed for exposing the reality of human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and criticising the country’s leader. This supposed ‘cultural shift’ has not given these same egalitarian principles for every citizen in the country who are instead punished for being a woman or part of the LGBTQ community. It is okay if you do not understand the ulterior motives behind an invitation, but surely you should ask the person who assesses the risks (either yourself or your manager) to do their research and be informed before accepting offers. At the end of the day, if you are an influencer who promotes places, brands and companies without thinking of the ethical implications, then you are a sell-out.