MDL Beast music festival
Photography via Daniele Venturelli/Getty

Models, Actors, Influencers Receive Backlash for Promoting a Music Festival in Saudi Arabia

Here's why people are mad.

This past weekend, the MDL Beast music festival took place in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh, within the historical city of Diriyah. Marketed as “the region’s biggest music event,” it drew some of the world’s biggest celebrities, including model Winnie Harlow and actor Armie Hammer. It also attracted global controversy. Here’s the breakdown of what went on at the three-day festival, who was involved and why people are mad.

Who was involved:

J Balvin, Steve Aokie and David Guetta were positioned as some of the festival’s big performers. Among the crowd were celebrities, influencers and models, who were invited to attend and promote MDL Beast on their personal social media platforms. Hollywood actors like Ryan Phillippe, Wilmer Valderrama and Armie Hammer were in attendance, as were models like Alessandra Ambrosio, Halima Aden, Imaan Hammam and Joan Smalls, and Bollywood superstar Sonam Kapoor. Aden and Ambrosio later shared that they were paid to post about the event.

Why people are angry:

The festival was heavily portrayed on social media as a proud moment for Saudi Arabia — a “cultural shift,” according to an Instagram post by Armie Hammer. But these Western influencers and celebrities are being criticized for promoting Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination without mention of its human rights abuses, and the festival itself is receiving backlash for whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s image. (As reported by The New York Times, the country also faced similar backlash in October when a slew of travel influencers were tapped to promote international tourism.)

For some background information, Saudi Arabia was recently reprimanded by the United Nations Human Rights Council for the “continuing arrests and arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders” in the country, as well as for its treatment of Saudi women. Some months later, in September, Saudi Arabia made visas available to non-religious tourists for the first time. Events like the MDL Beast festival are a part of Saudi Arabia’s attempts to boost its economy, promote tourism and polish its international image. None of the country’s human rights abuses were mentioned by the influencers promoting the event on social media, prompting outrage.

The responses:
One of the first to call this out was Instagram watchdog Diet Prada. Crediting an anonymous source, the account said that certain guests were offered six-figure payments to attend and geo-tag the location on social media posts, aiding the country’s “propaganda” efforts.

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What’s worse than an all white @revolve influencer trip? 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. According to anonymous sources, six-figure sums were offered for attendance and geo-tagged posts. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Following the government’s pre-meditated murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in October 2018 , the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in May 2018, the outing of a gay Saudi journalist and his partner who began receiving death threats from their families (homosexuality is a crime in Saudi Arabia and punishable by death), and countless other human rights abuses, a bevy of supermodels, influencers, celebrities, and musicians convened in Riyadh for the inaugural @mdlbeast . According to @hypebeast , the electronic music festival is “one of the most significant musical events the region has ever seen”. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Saudi Arabia has been spending billions to change its image in the west, but this is sure to be the most expensive campaign yet. In a series of Instagram stories posted by transgender model @teddy_quinlivan , it was revealed that fellow model @emrata had turned down the trip, evidently aware of the country’s human rights crisis. “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”, said Ratajkowski in a statement to Diet Prada. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Unfortunately, not all shared the same sentiments. There are simply too many attendees to name. Dieters, feel free to tag any attendees you know of… just in case they haven’t been reading the news. • #propoganda #jamalkashoggi #humanrights #humanrightsabuse #lgbtq #lgbtqrights #freespeech #journalism #independent #womensrights #mdlbeast #edm #electronicmusic #supermodel #influencer #content #riyadh #emrata #emilyratajkowski #teddyquinlivan #model #celebrity #dj #electronicmusic #musicfestival #wtf #smh #government #corruption #dietprada

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Phillip Picardi, former Teen Vogue and Out editor, spoke out about the festival’s role in the country’s expanded tourism strategies. He wrote: “Extremely, profoundly disappointed to see people on my Instagram feed who traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of their government’s image rehabilitation campaign.” Picardi later went on to say “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?”

Among the people to comment on Armie Hammer’s social media posts was journalist Yashar Ali, who tweeted about the brutal murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, which the CIA has concluded the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, was involved in. He also tweeted that “a major film/tv star” was reportedly offered an eight-figure sum to attend, which she declined.

While famous figures continue to speak out about those who chose to attend and promote the musical event, others are in support of the festival’s role in attempting to revamp Saudi Arabia’s image. Musician and author Kristina Bazan (who has 2.2 million followers on Instagram) commented on Diet Prada’s post, arguing that they are only pointing to the negative aspects. Her point stated: “One month ago the Visa law in Saudi was changed, the government of Saudi is trying to bring new energy and dynamic: social media has social resonance. How can we evolve as a globalized world and change things by boycotting areas that need the coming of fresh minds and ideas?”

Model Emily Ratajkowski, who has over 24 million Instagram followers, is acutely aware of the power and resonance of social media, which is why she turned down her paid invitation due to the discomfort she felt with Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Diet Prada shared a statement they received from Ratajkowski on why she chose not to attend the event. “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,” read the statement. “I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there.”