What didn’t make it into their captions and tweets, however, was any reference to reports that document the human rights abuses of the festival’s host, the government of Saudi Arabia.
The event — along with the stars who were invited and possibly paid to attend — was organized by the kingdom’s entertainment authority and is part of its sweeping public relations strategy to showcase cultural changes. But critics say it also serves a much more insidious purpose: to rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s damaged international image after the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The CIA concluded last year that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s October 2018 assassination inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, contradicting Saudi Arabia’s insistence that the crown prince had no advance knowledge of the plot.
On Monday, the kingdom announced that five people had been sentenced to death in Khashoggi’s killing. The two most senior officials implicated in the case, including an adviser to the crown prince, were cleared of wrongdoing.
The people who attended the festival have abetted that effort, according to journalists, human rights experts and influencers who chose not to go.
Posts from MDL Beast’s high-profile revelers were accompanied by the visual cues that often indicate a paid partnership. Some used the hashtags #ad, #MDLBeast partners or #MDLBeastbrandambassadors. Many tagged the festival’s Instagram account @mdlbeast in all their flattering photo captions. Festival organizers did not respond to a request from The Washington Post to confirm whether they paid influencers to promote their event.
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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 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
American actor Armie Hammer posted photos to Instagram, where he has 1.2 million followers.
“What I just witnessed was truly special,” he wrote. “It felt like a cultural shift. A change. Like Woodstock in the 1960′s.”
But in the days since the event ended, others have been quick to point out the kingdom’s ongoing restrictions of women’s rights and the crackdown on political dissent that Mohammed has overseen — even as the government pursues projects like MDL Beast, which would have been unthinkable only several years ago.
The country just recently began to allow women to drive, and in August, a royal decree for the first time allowed women to travel without the permission of their husbands or a male relative. It took months for the government to release women’s rights advocates who it had arrested and detained before those changes on what Amnesty International called “bogus charges.” Loujain al-Hathloul, among the most prominent activists, has been imprisoned for a year and a half.
As Western festival-goers arrived in Riyadh in varying states of undress, the activist Rana Ahmad said Saudi women, forced to wear abayas and headscarves, would never be able to appear in public so dressed down.
“They enjoy their freedom here, while Saudi women are suffering and watching!” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s really the worst feeling that you can’t be free and treated differently just because you’re a Saudi [woman]!”
Among the most vocal critics of the music festival and its brand ambassadors was Karen Attiah, a Washington Post opinion writer and Khashoggi’s editor at the time of his death.
“The dark side of influencer culture is that it really is the ultimate expression of capitalism. Money over human lives,” Attiah wrote on Twitter. “What good is your platform if you overlook Saudi regime’s murder and torture for a few bucks?”
Attiah, who is writing a book about Khashoggi’s work for The Post, called the influencers’ financial kickbacks “blood money.”
The duo behind the Instagram account Diet Prada, which serves as a kind of watchdog over the fashion and beauty industry, called on its 1.6 million followers to draw attention to the influencers who may have accepted money to promote the festival.
The paid attendees were “Cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia,” Diet Prada wrote in a weekend post.
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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
In a statement posted to social media, model Emily Ratajkowski said she turned down a paid invitation to attend and promote the festival even though she has “always wanted to visit Saudi Arabia.”
“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,” Ratajkowski wrote. “I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there.”
Transgender model Teddy Quinlivan claimed in an Instagram story post that the Saudi government had paid influencers to “positively promote travel and events” to the country and wrote that any influencer who was “promoting tourism to a place [that] openly kills journalists and LGBTQ people” was a “sell out.”
“Extremely, profoundly disappointed to see people on my Instagram feed who traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of their government’s image rehabilitation campaign,” former Out editor and current GQ columnist Phillip Picardi wrote on social media. He encouraged any influencers who were unaware of Khashoggi’s murder or the “ulterior motives” behind the Saudi government’s invitation to call their agent, whose job, Picardi said, is to do risk assessment and research before accepting a paid partnership.
An image of a Glamour UK Instagram story that advertised the MDL Beast festival also circulated. The post was labeled as a “paid partnership” with the event organizers. Representatives from Glamour UK and its parent company, Condé Nast, did not respond to a request for comment from The Post.
After this sham verdict in Jamal Khashoggi’s trial, I would hope @CondeNast and @GlamourMagUK returns the money it took from the Saudi regime over the weekend.— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) December 23, 2019
Or at least, take a stand with journalists and donate the money to press freedom efforts. pic.twitter.com/Ct2gAXk64t
In response to criticism from the Diet Prada account, Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor said she wished to “agree to disagree.”
“ … Let’s appreciate that the whole world is” problematic right now and “any step forward is something that I want to celebrate,” she wrote on her Instagram story. “I was treated with immense respect and love as a Hindu brown female actor.”
American actor Ryan Phillippe has also defended his attendance in the comments of the photos he posted to Instagram from Saudi Arabia. When a user asked him if he was getting paid to post about the festival, Phillippe did not answer the question but said he was traveling to “many places in the mid east.”
“Find me a country without issues, I’ll wait,” Phillippe wrote. ” … Things are changing and progressing rapidly in KSA and the people are lovely. Pay attention and quit virtue signaling, princess.”