Saudi Arabia is banking on the hopes that the entertainment industry is willing to overlook the regime’s heinous crimes. And by the looks of it, the regime may be right. While there was massive social media outrage over models and influencers who were allegedly paid last year to attend Saudi Arabia’s MDL Beast music festival, there has been little outcry over these recent deals.
There is no doubt that artists and those who work in the entertainment industry are suffering badly from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus and stay-at-home orders. Entertainment companies depend on free expression in order to thrive. But by accepting blood money from a regime that thinks nothing of jailing social media stars, torturing its most famous activist women or murdering a Washington Post columnist, they are undermining precisely that value in exchange for keeping shareholders happy.
America has seen Saudi political pressure on cultural production before. Jamal Khashoggi once recommended I watch the 1980s British docudrama “Death of a Princess,” produced by the United Kingdom’s ATV. The film was based on the true story of Princess Mishaal, who was executed in 1977 after beginning an affair with a young lover and attempting to flee Saudi Arabia. In the film, a fictional British journalist named Christopher Ryder sets out to investigate the execution and learn more about the young princess’s life. Though the producers never used Saudi Arabia’s name in the film (the country was just called “Arabia”), the real regime of Saudi Arabia became so incensed at the time that it withdrew its British ambassador in protest and threatened sanctions. When the film was due to be screened in the United States by PBS, the Saudi government complained, even leaning on its friends in Mobil Oil to take out full-page newspaper ads to tell PBS to reconsider airing the film.
Today, Saudi censorship and pressure are already starting to affect the climate in the United States. Last year, Netflix pulled comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” episode on Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi from its Saudi catalogue after Saudi officials claimed that it violated the kingdom’s cybercrime law, which prohibits “production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals and privacy.” There was no evidence Netflix tried to challenge the ruling or asked Saudi Arabia to explain how the episode was a threat to public order. In February, Oscar-winning director Bryan Fogel claimed that his film about Khashoggi, “The Dissident,” was unable to find a buyer for wider distribution due to what he claimed to be Saudi influence.
American companies have long justified their business engagements with closed, authoritarian regimes with the argument that exposing these countries to Western content and culture will help the country to be more open, freer, more “like us.” But for corporations that are looking to tap into new markets for revenue, a dollar is a dollar, whether the target audience lives in a democracy or an authoritarian state. The NBA’s siding with China and tamping down on expressions for support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests is just one recent example. It’s hard to imagine entertainment companies going up against potential Saudi investors.
Corporations did play a positive role in pressuring for change in apartheid South Africa, but that was only through establishing concrete goals and coordinated campaigns with other businesses. No coordinated campaign against the abuses of Saudi Arabia’s regime has materialized in the U.S. business community. Since Khashoggi’s killing, the kingdom has continued with its brazen ways. In March, the regime arrested MBS’s older cousin and former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Last month, one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous activists, Abdullah al-Hamid, died as a result of medical neglect in a Saudi jail. And more recently, May 15 marked the second anniversary of the jailing of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent female activists, including Loujain al-Hathloul, whom Khashoggi wrote about.
The coronavirus has brought America’s economy to its knees. But if the entertainment industry continues to do business with Saudi Arabia, it is showing the world that it is willing to throw morals and American values into the trash.