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Sunday, Sep 20, 2020

Actors, models, social media influencers face backlash for attending festival in Saudi Arabia

Actors, social media influencers, models and other celebrities attended a festival in Saudi Arabia and posted about it to their accounts.

Supermodels and social media mavens, their makeup artists and hair stylists in tow, posed at MDL Beast, a concert. What was unusual about these Instagram posts was that they were all tagged in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which caught the attention of some critics.

The bevy of Instagram stars, former Victoria's Secret models, including Alessandra Ambrosio, and Hollywood actors such as Ryan Phillippe, Ed Westwick, Armie Hammer and Wilmer Valderrama were invited to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to promote the kingdom's most eye-popping effort at showcasing the changes taking hold in the country, where more than half of its 20 million citizens are under 25 years old.

It's a pivot from three years ago, when religious police stormed restaurants playing music and harassed women in malls for showing their face or wearing red nail polish.

Though the efforts are aimed at boosting the economy while polishing Saudi Arabia's image abroad and appealing to the young, the stars in attendance faced criticism from social media for being tone-deaf and "shameless."

Aminatou Sow, co-host of the "Call Your Girlfriend" podcast, called out the celebrities by sharing screenshots of their social media posts highlighting the Saudi Arabia trip.

"Would love to know which PR firm/s kingdom of Saudi Arabia hired to do its image rehab," Sow wrote to Twitter. "Sick to see celebs and influencers shamelessly promoting this nonsense.


Sow cited controversial events in the country, including journalist Jamal Kashoggi's murder.

Diet Prada, a popular Instagram account that called out the fashion industry, shamed attendees for their participation.

"What’s worse than an all white @revolve influencer trip?" read a post on Instagram. "Cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia, a country said to be causing 'the world’s worst humanitarian crisis', according to the United Nations."

When asked by The Associated Press, the entertainment authority that licensed MDL Beast said some people were compensated for promoting the event, but it denied six-figure sums were paid to individuals.

Phillippe responded to criticisms by sharing photos from his trip and captioning one of them with an explanation on why he chose to attend.

"i had a magical day with wonderful people. will prob add to this caption later when i gather my thoughts again. i love travel. i love different cultures," he wrote. "I love how we can find ways to connect through our human oneness, the pure desire for love and freedom. no matter where in the world. hoping those connections help to bring even more positive change and progress."

This year, hip-hop star Nicki Minaj pulled out of performing in the kingdom over concerns about women's rights, gay rights and freedom of expression.

Though the social changes ushered in by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been sweeping, so, too, is his crackdown on criticism and political expression. The prince has overseen the country's war in Yemen, which has led to a humanitarian crisis, and the arrest of women's rights activists, clerics and writers.

He drew international condemnation after the killing of Saudi writer and Washington Post columnist Khashoggi in Turkey, slaughtered by Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year.

The incident tarnished Prince Mohammed’s international image, though his popularity is undeniable at home.

“The changes are really incredible, and, God willing, we are heading toward even more,” said Mona Hassan, a mother out with her grown daughters at a family-friendly carnival in Diriyah, near Riyadh. “We are with Mohammed bin Salman wherever he takes us and whatever happens.”

The Diriyah festival, which opened a month ago, included sporting events such as the world's heavyweight boxing championship.

Families skated on an ice-rink, ziplined across the park, rode on a Ferris wheel and played galactic bowling. At the other end of the site, a younger crowd of Saudis smoked shisha – the bubbling waterpipe – and dined at pop-up restaurants where prices ranged from $100 to $1,200 a person for a meal.

Couples sat on park benches under the stars, listening to a Saudi musician playing the oud, a stringed instrument popular in the Middle East.

Only one major incident has marred the festivities. Last month, a Yemeni man stabbed two Spanish dancers and a guard at a live show in Riyadh. State media reported this week that he had allegedly acted on the orders of a senior al-Qaida leader in Yemen, according to evidence submitted during his trial.

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