Supermodels, movie stars, and influencers faced outrage on Monday for partying at a three-day rave in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, which was reportedly created to boost the country’s economy and polish its image abroad in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Social media posts from Call Me By Your Name actor Armie Hammer; Russian model Irina Shayk; former Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio; and actors Ryan Phillipe, Ed Westwick, and Wilmer Valderrama were tagged at the MDL Beast music festival over the weekend, which was reportedly sponsored by the kingdom. Event organizers invited more than 70 world-renowned DJs to the festival to perform on five stages, where thousands waited for hours to get in and tickets started around $20, according to the Associated Press.
It was not clear if the celebs were ignorant of the human rights issues that have recently plagued Saudi Arabia—including the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Khashoggi in October 2018 by Saudi agents and the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in May 2018—or if they just did not care. The CIA has said that the murder of Khashoggi could not have been carried out unless Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman authorized it.
“When your buddy asks you to go to join him in Riyadh... you go to Riyadh,” Hammer wrote on Instagram. “#mdlbeast has been amazing so far!”
“What I just witnessed was truly special,” Hammer said in another post on the social-media site. “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 1960’s. 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 a cultural revolution that we all need to get behind and support. #mdlbeast”
Despite Hammer’s efforts to draw attention to the supposed “cultural shift” he witnessed, commenters fired back with retorts like, “How much did Mohammed Bin Salman pay you to say this?” and “Never forget about Jamal Khashoggi.” Another follower blasted him for “promoting a country that kills journalists, LGTBQ+ people, restricts the lives of women,” and even journalist Yashar Ali chimed in by asking Hammer: “Did you find Jamal Khashoggi’s body while you were there?”
Model and fashion designer Sofia Richie and her Kardashian-affiliated boyfriend, Scott Disick, also attended the festival. Richie posted a photo of herself and friends captioned “Saudi Girls” from the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, the same site where bin Salman detained some of his political opponents in 2017, Page Six reported.
Fashion industry watchdog Diet Prada slammed the celebrities for attending, writing: “Cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia.” Diet Prada accused the stars of accepting six-figure sums in exchange for attending the event and geo-tagging posts. The entertainment authority that licensed MDL Beast told the Associated Press that some stars were compensated for promoting the event but denied paying six-figure sums to any individuals.
The outrage should not have been much of a surprise to the stars or their agents, since just a few months ago hip-hop performer Nicki Minaj pulled out of performing in Saudi Arabia over backlash to her planned concert there. She said in July that she opted to cancel the show over concerns about gay rights, women’s rights, and freedom of expression.
Global Opinions editor of The Washington Post, Karen Attiah, tweeted over the weekend that while “the social changes in Saudi Arabia are indeed remarkable,” they should not overshadow Khashoggi’s murder.
“The regime has been working overtime and spending billions to try to rehabilitate its image, partly by using western influencers,” Attiah wrote. “The dark side of influencer culture is that it really is the ultimate expression of capitalism. Money over human lives. What good is your platform if you overlook Saudi regime’s murder and torture for a few bucks? These influencers are just for-hire human billboards.”