Lauded as the Middle East's biggest music event, the so-called MDL Beast Festival ran from 19-21 December in the Saudi capital Riyadh promising to offer a "multi-sensory, multi-stage experience, showcasing both local and international talent, representing all spheres of the cultural landscape across multiple districts. A feast for the senses, it will enable festival goers to enjoy the most innovative, immersive experiences in world-class arts, culture and food in one single venue." The event included a line-up of artists including David Guetta, Steve Aoki, Black Coffee and Martin Garrix with celebrity guests such as supermodels Joan Smalls and Alessandro Ambrosio. There has also been a large entourage of social media "influencers" marketing the event to their followers.
However the festival, along with the celebrities and influencers associated with it, has faced a growing backlash on social media against a perceived whitewashing or "influence-washing" of Saudi Arabia's deplorable domestic human rights record, controversy over the Jamal Khashoggi murder – and two days before sentences were issued against some of the hit men in the case – to the kingdom's failing war effort in neighbouring Yemen which has led to the world's worst humanitarian crisis. The entertainment events are part of a wider strategic plan of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman's so-called Vision 2030 involving economic and social reform.
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think also about the last day of your life buddy.. 💡
— لندنِــِيّہے 🇸🇦 (@Allondony1) December 23, 2019
Adding a further negative spin on MDL Beast, has been several allegations of sexual assault experienced by female attendees which has surfaced on multiple social media platforms. One website which features K-Pop news (Korean boy-band Monsta X were also among the performers), described the event as a "Mass Sexual Assault Festival".
This is really embarrassing! So many foreigners were invited to attend one of the greatest music festivals in the Middle East and instead of welcoming them, they got sexually harassed.
والله شي يفشل للاسف #MDLBeast pic.twitter.com/g6wUYZnpO1
— هِكتر (@Heckhigh) December 22, 2019
One American female dancer spoke of her own personal experiences saying: "The level of sexual harassment at the concert was just ridiculous."
"I can't dance without someone interrupting or like trying to come up all on me if I'm standing somewhere, or any female at that matter, just standing around, people walk by trying to grope you up and feel on your body." Even women wearing the hijab and abaya were being groped, she added.
READ: Boxing: Anthony Joshua 'just doing a job' following claims of 'sportswashing' Saudi abuses
Under the hashtag the Arabic and English "SaudiMenHarassing", one tweet recounted one incident where a female was surrounded by a group of men before having some of her clothes ripped off of her.
She said about her friend "the girl is having a breakdown, group of men blockade her and ripped her blouse and her bra, she can't stand up, she screams and no one hearing and no one can see her" pic.twitter.com/CTdSYgHEGf
— ماكارينا (@llllXee) December 22, 2019
Even in cases where women were accompanied by men, sexual harassment occurred.
so disgusted sexual harassment is going unnoticed i'm seeing stories of girls being traumatized even after going with men to protect them so disappointed that girls have to go through trauma in order to enjoy concerts like any other human #تحرش_ميدل_بيست
— JINNIE DAY (@namjoonie__twt) December 21, 2019
Even more concerning was the fact that minors or girls who had just turned the legal age of consent in Saudi Arabia were being harassed.
READ: 10 artists hit by human rights criticism over concerts
i'm so glad this is steadily gaining more attention.. i saw a girl say that being touched & groped like that will remain in her head for the rest of her life & she keeps having nightmares everytime she goes to sleep i literally cant do anything but try to bring more awareness:(
— chel dorado🦄 (@yixingbbygirl) December 23, 2019
Having people act "like wild animals" at an event called MDL Beast is expected, Twitter user Muhammad Al-Forzan argued.
When you go to MDL Beast you should expect wild beasts. If you fear for your life (and dignity), stay away from the jungle.#تحرش_ميدل_بيست pic.twitter.com/qBUaY78HZY
— محمد س. الفوزان (@msalfozan) December 21, 2019
Others on social media turned to criticising the so-called "influencers" for their decision to take up the offer of a "free image rehab trip" to the kingdom.
My friend @pfpicardi just flagged that there's a group of celebs and influencers on a free image rehab trip to Saudi Arabia..did you know you could NOT go to places that dismember journalists, murder queer people and violently oppress women under the guise of religion?
— Zara Rahim (@ZaraRahim) December 21, 2019
a Saudi citizen via teddy quinlivan pic.twitter.com/8n2EwcOs79
— Alexandra Mondalek (@amondalek) December 21, 2019
Karen Attiah, editor at the Washington Post who worked with the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, posted an image purportedly naming several influencers who attended the festival.
Speaking of the Saudi regime trying to buy the appearance of progress—
Here are names of western celebs and influencers that the regime paid this weekend to post feel-good IG photos of concerts in Riyadh. @MDLBeast
All of this is blood money. #JamalKhashoggi pic.twitter.com/fHVtknue0X
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) December 23, 2019
Somali-American model Halima Aden who is the "first black woman to wear a hijab" on the cover of Essence magazine was among those named and shamed.
And she just took a big fat check to go to Saudi Arabia and whitewash the KSA's conduct. https://t.co/ygTLFETac6
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) December 23, 2019
Armie Hammer, Sofia Richie, Irina Shayk and Olivia Culpo are among the celebs slammed for taking 'six-figure sums' to attend Saudi Arabia festival https://t.co/l9IJtPl3NK pic.twitter.com/7vaIIhFG9l
— Daily Mail Celebrity (@DailyMailCeleb) December 23, 2019
READ: K-pop band BTS heads to Saudi Arabia
An Instagram account called Diet_Prada featured a lengthy caption post which claimed, according to anonymous sources, that "six-figure sums" were offered for attendance and geo-tagged posts. Adding that model Emily Ratajkowski turned down an offer to attend citing the country's "human rights crisis".
View this post on Instagram
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
Remember that part in the Hunger Games when they show all the assholes and douchebags partying in the Capital district? Ya. That's you.
— The Socialist Gun Club (@LarryDSellers) December 24, 2019
Twitter user Rana Ahmad started a thread discussing the issue of women's rights in Saudi against the contradictory backdrop of partially-clothed, foreign celebrities freely showing their midriffs.
#Thread: Saudi Arabia recently invited many celebrities around the world, to improve the reputation of Saudi Arabia, to hide the truth about Saudi Arabia. To make everyone in social media thinks Saudi has really changed! In this thread I'll just talk about Saudi women rights. pic.twitter.com/wXKPykE9bH
— Rana Ahmad (@lovhum) December 21, 2019
Human rights lawyer Gissou Nia also took to Twitter to express her disapproval of paid influencers using the caption "Saudi girls" in a country with a much-criticised attitude to women's rights.
I've been too busy working to realize that a raft of influencers were just paid (again) to fly to Saudi to brighten MBS's image. Seeing the caption "Saudi girls" is especially grating when I think of Saudi women's rights activists jailed or exiled for pushing for basic freedoms. pic.twitter.com/lPd8YjrQVN
— Gissou Nia/ گیسو نیا (@GissouNia) December 21, 2019
While Noura Berrouba, member of the Governing Body of the European Youth Parliament (EYP), asked what many of us are thinking:
Can we cancel influencer culture?
Celebrities & influencers being paid to clean & rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia, one of worst human rights abusers & one of the least free countries in the world. You choose what to do with your platform. And you choose this? pic.twitter.com/nL35PV75co
— Noura Berrouba (@NouraBerrouba) December 22, 2019
READ: Turkey: Saudi court ruling on Khashoggi murder 'far from meeting expectations'