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Celebrities under fire for 'influencer washing' Saudi Arabia

Actors, musicians and Instagrammers have been called out for falling for Saudi Arabia's attempt to improve its image in the West
Halima Aden and other so-called 'influencers' have been criticised for participating in Saudi festival (AFP/File photo)

This weekend, Saudi Arabia played unlikely host to one of the world’s biggest electronic dance music festivals.

MDL Beast was headlined by household names Steve Aoki and David Guetta, and reportedly attracted more than 100,000 fans in Riyadh.

Among the guests were several international celebrities and influencers, who shared their positive experiences of the festival on social media. 

Hollywood actor Armie Hammer spoke of a "cultural shift" akin to "Woodstock in the 1960's", referring to the 1969 music festival in New York which became a symbol for counterculture. 

Others celebrities in attendance included British actor Ed Westwick, Bollywood actress Sonam Kapoor and Instagram influencers Halima Aden and Winnie Harlow. 

Despite the perceived positivity, many critics saw the festival as a cynical attempt to improve Saudi Arabia's image amid growing concerns about the kingdom's human rights. 

Activists were keen to point out that influencers presenting a modern and open Saudi Arabia were ignoring the kingdom's record on women's rights.

Last year, Saudi Arabia arrested dozens of women's rights activists shortly after it announced that it was granting women the right to drive.

Among the critics was Lina Alhathloul, the sister of women's rights activist Loujain Alhathloul who has been imprisoned by Saudi authorities since May 2018.

Others pointed at the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed last October in what a UN report called an "extrajudicial killing for which Saudi Arabia is responsible".

One user suggested that influencers should donate any money they received for attending to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

A recent report by the Committee placed the kingdom amongst the top abusers of journalists worldwide, arresting 26 over the past year.

Glamour UK, a magazine published by Condé Nast, came under particular criticism for partnering with the Saudi festival. Just last year Glamour hosted a discussion in which Karen Attiah, a former editor of Khashoggi at the Washington Post, made powerful remarks about the murder of her colleague. 

On Sunday, Attiah said she was shocked to find out that Glamour had accepted a paid media partnership with MDL Beast.

Not all celebrities accepted the offer to promote the Saudi event. 

Actor and model Emily Ratajkowski was praised for turning down the opportunity, citing her support for "women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press." 

Beyond the gruesome murder of Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul last year, the kingdom has been facing an outcry from rights groups over its arrests of dissidents, journalists and women's rights advocates.

Saudi Arabia also stands accused of major war crimes and human rights violations in Yemen where it is leading a military campaign against the country's Houthi rebels.

Seperately from the influencer fallout, the festival was also tainted by accounts of sexual harassment. 

Despite the criticism, Saudi Arabia is likely to deem the scale and profile of the festival as a success.

International music festivals, along with major sporting events, have become part of Saudi’s Vision 2030 strategy to make the economy less oil-reliant. The entertainment industry is seen as an area to increase economic growth and present the image of a more modern Saudi Arabia.