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.
think also about the last day of your life buddy.. 💡
— اْنتے عُمّري ے (@Anty_Alkul) 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”.
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.
Even in cases where women were accompanied by men, sexual harassment occurred.
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.
Having people act “like wild animals” at an event called MDL Beast is expected, Twitter user Muhammad Al-Forzan argued.
— محمد سليمان 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
— 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
— Daily Mail Celebrity (@DailyMailCeleb) December 23, 2019
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”.
Remember that part in the Hunger Games when they show all the assholes and douchebags partying in the Capital district? Ya. That’s you.
— Elon’s Tiny Penis (@MotherOfFBombs) 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