Last weekend a lot of Hollywood stars, musicians and top models went to MDL Beast, a music festival in Saudi Arabia. The government of that country sponsored the trip, and “You think cash is more important than human rights,” it sounds in no uncertain terms.
Afrojack, Salvatore Ganacci, Sebastian Ingrosso, Tiësto, Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, David Guetta,… No, the lineup of MDL Beast in the Saudi capital Riyadh was not inferior. It’s only logical that a lot of stars wanted to be there, you’d think. Actors Armie Hammer, Wilmer Valderrama, Ed Westwick, and Ryan Philippe, made their appearance, as did Sofia Richie and her sweet Scott Disick, and models Alessandra Ambrosio, Olivia Culpo, Nadine Leopold, Cindy Bruna, Winnie Harlow, Stella Maxwell, Jourdan Dunn, Irina Shayk, Romee Strijd, Joan Smalls, Elsa Hosk and Rose Bertram. All known attendees spoke enthusiastically about the festival. However, it turns out that the celebrities present did not come so much because they wanted to enjoy the music, but because they received a fat cheque for it from the Saudi government. Depending on the source, the figure would range from six to eight digits.
Not the first time
Admittedly, it is not the first time that the Saudi government engages people – after payment – to advertise the country. A while back, for example, they leaked out a luxurious trip from several travel influencers. The intention? To minimize the bad reputation of the country, to stimulate tourism and to reduce human rights violations as much as possible.
For understandable reasons, the fact that the government did this again and so many stars went up on it is a thorn in the side of many people. One of the first to denounce this was the Instagram account, ‘Diet Prada’. “What’s worse than an all-white influencer trip? Cashing big fat checks in exchange for content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia,” it sounds there. Journalist Yashar Ali also confirmed that the celebs were paid.
Crimes against humanity
These hefty sums are part of a large-scale campaign that is intended to make us forget some recent abuses. The government wants to sweep under the carpet, among other things, that human rights are still a tricky issue in the country. For example, in October 2018, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It soon became clear that the principals were within the palace walls of Riyadh. A few months earlier, in May, women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was arrested and deported.
Model and influencer Sofia Richie (21), in particular, had a hard time and was struck by her followers. She posted a photo from the Ritz-Carlton hotel with two girlfriends, where she added “Saudi Girls.” “You’re so stupid,” the commenter fired. “This is the same place where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had several people locked up for indicting abuses in Saudi Arabia. Add to that the fact that women’s rights activists are still locked up and tortured.” “‘Saudi Girls’ gets a nasty undertone that way, don’t you think?”
Although Sofia isn’t the only one who’s getting a hard time on Instagram right now, the same goes for actor Armie Hammer (33). He posted a series of photos on the social networking site, comparing the festival with Woodstock, among other things. “What I just witnessed was truly special. I saw Saudi men and women ecstatic about an event that they never thought they would ever see in their lifetimes… it felt like a cultural shift. A change. Like Woodstock in the 1960s. Social evolution is slow and takes time, but what I was able to be a part of felt like one giant seed of growth. The people there throwing themselves into the experience will lead to a cultural revolution that we all need to get behind and support.”
To which journalist Yashar Ali responded. “Did you happen to find the body of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi while you were there?” It sounded sharp. Several other critics described Armie’s post as “beyond shame.”
“Money over human lives,” ‘Washington Post’ writer Karen Attiah finally summed it up. “What’s good about your platform as an influencer if you’re willing to sweep the murders and tortures of the Saudi regime under the carpet for money? Then you’re just a human billboard you can hire…”
Even though some stars decided not to go to the festival, despite the mountain of pennies they could get for it. For example, model Emily Ratajkowski (28) announced that she had refused the trip. “I find it very important to express my support for women’s rights, the LGBTQ community, freedom of speech, and free press. This does not exist in Saudi Arabia. By talking about this, I hope that more attention will be paid to the abuses that are happening here,” Emily said.
Also, fellow model Martha Hunt (30) decided not to go. “I want to show solidarity with the Saudi people who are oppressed, and I refuse to be used in a campaign to cover up injustice. I advise other influencers to make decisions based on integrity, not pennies…”