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Models and Influencers Face Backlash for Promoting Music Festival in Saudi Arabia

MDL Beast appears to have invited dozens of models — including Joan Smalls, Halima Aden and Irina Shayk — to attend (and post from) its inaugural event in Riyadh.
Irina Shayk, Stella Maxwell and Joan Smalls attend MDL Beast in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Irina Shayk, Stella Maxwell and Joan Smalls attend MDL Beast in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Influencer trips that sparked Internet backlash became commonplace through the tail end of the 2010s. And one final incident that made its way toward the top of discover feeds across the globe is, once again, making headlines for all the wrong reasons — just in time to close out the decade.

Over the past weekend, dozens of models, social media influencers and other Western celebrities visited Saudi Arabia on what appeared to be a coordinated, paid-for trip to attend MDL Beast, a new music festival in the region. Although the event itself — one in which international DJs, local musicians and visual artists performed and presented their works — was apolitical in its programming, an official press release noted: "MDL Beast Festival has only been made possible due to reforms from Saudi Arabia's national Vision 2030 agenda, such as permitting live concerts, sporting events, welcoming foreign visitors and tourists, as well as relaxing local laws on dress code and freedoms."

Those upset with Western celebrities for attending and posting from MDL Beast accuse them of ignoring the Arab country's stance on women's rights and LGBTQ+ rights, its involvement in the murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and its crackdown on government dissidents.

"If you have any semblance of journalistic integrity, maybe it might be a cute idea not to take money from foreign governments that, um, I don't know, openly kill and assassinate journalists [and] LGBTQ+ people," model Teddy Quinlivan wrote on her Instagram Story, referring to Glamour UK's promotion of the festival as part of a "paid partnership" on its Instagram Story over the weekend.

"My issue isn't with tourism, visiting countries, et cetera — all stuff I do think is vital to expand imagination and meet people on the ground doing good work there. It's that a lot of the messaging of the captions is about portraying [Saudi Arabia] as changed and accepting," Phillip Picardi, former Out and Teen Vogue editor-in-chief, posted over the weekend on Instagram Stories. "You can't really 'buy' that kind of messaging, and how was your experience there tainted by who organized your trip and what you can or cannot say? And who you can or cannot meet? Where you can or cannot go? How is your influence and following being leveraged, and by whom?"

According to the event's website, the three-day festival is "the first of its kind within Saudi Arabia and it aims to pave the way to a whole new experience within the society it exists in." Artists performing over the weekend included Afrojack, Steve Aoki, David Guetta and fashion favorite duo Simi Haze (whose Instagram is now private). It's unclear who the festival's organizers are or whether the Saudi government's newly emboldened tourism board commissioned non-Muslim influencers to attend the event, although a link promoting MDL Beast exists on the government's official tourism website.

The backlash surrounding the attendance began to gain traction once people like Karen Attiah, Khashoggi's editor at The Washington Post, criticized the event on social media. (Coincidentally, on Monday, Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death and three to prison for Khashoggi's murder in Instanbul last year, in what is seen as a move to protect Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.)

That same day, de facto industry watchdog Diet Prada, with more than 1.6 million Instagram followers, posted its own take on the events.

"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," the team at Diet Prada posted on Instagram on Sunday.

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Within the fashion set, attendees included: Joan Smalls, Olivia Culpo, Halima Aden, Romee Strijd, Jourdan Dunn, Elsa Hosk, Alessandra Ambrosio, Stella Maxwell, Irina Shayk, Megan Williams, Yovanna Ventura, Lorena Rae, Winnie Harlow, Imaan Hammam, Sanne Vloet, Isabeli Fontana, Cindy Bruna and Hana Cross. Few posted the standard practice digital disclosures on social media advertisements that are required in places like the United States during the Instagram blitz over the weekend. (Alessandra Ambrosio, for her part, included "#ad" and "MDLBeastpartner" in her posts.

Sofia Richie attended the festival with Scott Disick and stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh; incidentally, the hotel was a detainment site for political opponents of bin Salman in 2017.

While no one has confirmed payments made for the content posted during the trip, influencers with millions of followers — like many of the former Victoria's Secret models flown to Riyadh — regularly command six-figure paychecks for paid content deals. 

Martha Hunt and Emily Ratajkowski both publicly stated they were invited to attend the trip but declined, with Hunt noting on her Instagram Story: "I stand in solidarity with the repressed people of Saudi Arabia and refuse to be used as a campaign to cover up those suffering from injustice. I encourage other influencers to make informed monetized decisions based on social conscience and integrity."

In September, the kingdom announced a new e-visa program allowing for people from 49 countries to visit Saudi Arabia as tourists; previously, it only allowed tourism from Muslims. While this expansion is seen as part of a larger economic strategy to reduce the country's dependence on oil, it's also a chance for Saudi Arabia to rehabilitate its public image around the world.

As The New York Times pointed out, "Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in the world, adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam, and is considered as particularly harsh to women who are seen as breaking religious rules." Its women are required by law to wear a hijab at the very least, while many opt for a full niqab or abaya robe. Looking through their photos posted to Instagram from the event, it appears none of the Western visitors at MDL Beast were required to do so. (Indeed, in September the kingdom dropped its dress code for foreign women visiting the country as part of Saudi Arabia's tourism expansion policy.)

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Although the country is adopting a bevy of new laws which seem to liberalize parts of its ultra-conservative culture — including one adopted this month that ends gender segregation in restaurants and a lifted driving ban for women — enforcement of many of these new laws is spotty, with the cultural shift slow to follow the legal changes. In particular, several attendees at MDL Beast took to Reddit and social media to complain of rampant sexual harassment and groping they witnessed during the event, despite a law passed in 2018 in which the country officially outlawed sexual harassment. Although there were two highly publicized arrests for sexual harassment in the country this year, it's unclear what will come of the alleged abuses from the festival.

It isn't the first time influencers have been brought in to help rehabilitate Saudi Arabia's image to foreigners. In October, the kingdom recruited travel influencers to post images from supervised trips glossing over the harsh realities that face citizens in Saudi Arabia regularly. As Danielle Rivers-Mitchell of Black Girls Travel Too told the Times: "I've sat at boardroom tables with tourism boards who have offered to provide me with the red carpet treatment just to promote their destination. I've walked away from several tourism boards because of the way they treat their citizens within that country. It's not worth it."

None of the models who attended MDL Beast this weekend immediately responded to Fashionista’s request for comment. 

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