MDL Beast had all the markings of a big budget electronic music festival. The lineup included big name acts such as David Guetta and Steve Aoki. The guest list featured supermodels (Joan Smalls and Alessandro Ambrosio) and actors (Armie Hammer and Ed Westwick), and there was plenty of fluorescent face paint and neon lights, but the event was not held in the California or the Nevada desert.
Instead, MDL Beast was located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The festival, which took place over the weekend, billed itself as “the region’s biggest music event.”
Now many of its high-profile attendees are being accused of engaging in “image rehab” for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
It is not the first time Western celebrities and influencers have been criticized for promoting Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination.
In September, Saudi Arabia announced it would open itself to foreign tourism. In addition to offering tourist visas, the government enacted policy changes to make the region more appealing to tourists, including allowing unmarried foreign couples to book hotel rooms together, and allowing solo female travelers to rent hotel rooms.
Following these changes a number of influencers, with follower numbers in the hundreds of thousands, accepted paid-for press trips to the kingdom, and posted fawning commentary on social media.
The biggest-name attendees at MDL Beast have follower counts in the millions. While many documented their experience at the festival on social media, mentions of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record were noticeably absent.
Actor Armie Hammer said on Instagram that the festival “felt like a cultural shift.”
Journalist Yashar Ali responded by asking Hammer: “Did you find Jamal Khashoggi’s body while you were there?”
Podcast host and writer Aminatou Sow said on Twitter that the influencer culture is “shameless”.
According to Instagram stories posted by model Theodora Quinlivan, Emily Ratajkowski — who has more than 24 million followers — turned down a paid invitation to attend the festival, because she was uncomfortable with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, particularly for LGBTIQ+ people.
The actions of the influencers were called out by Diet Prada, an Instagram account that has garnered 1.6 million followers for criticizing the fashion industry on issues of plagiarism and cultural appropriation.
Diet Prada received a statement from Ratajkowski detailing why she declined to attend.
“It’s 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,” the statement said.
Writer and editor Phillip Picardi, who has previously worked as digital editorial director of Conde Nast’s Teen Vogue was also critical.
On Instagram stories, he said he was “extremely, profoundly disappointed to see people on my Instagram feed who traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of their government’s image rehabilitation campaign.”
He later posted: “A lot of the messaging of the captions is about portraying SA as changed and accepting, and the trips appear to be coordinated with the government or tourism board. You can’t really ‘buy’ that kind of messaging, and how was your experience there tainted by who organized your trip and what you can or cannot say?”
Smalls, Hammer, Westwick, Amy Jackson and Ambrosio, among others, all posted content from the festival, as did Halima Aden, one of the first hijab-wearing models to sign with a major modeling agency.
Ambrosio and Aden said that they had been paid to post.
Conde Nast publication Glamour UK also included a sponsored campaign from the festival.
The festival comes more than one year after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The killing was soon traced to the door of the Saudi royal court.
The stain on the reputation of the royal family endures, despite Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s repeated denials that he had personally issued the “kill order.”
The prince has presided over an opening up of the kingdom, allowing women to travel without the permission of a male guardian, register a marriage and be the legal guardian of children.
However, still in place are rules that require male consent for a woman to leave prison, exit a domestic abuse shelter or marry. Women, unlike men, still cannot pass on citizenship to their children and cannot provide consent for their children to marry.
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