Riyadh(ANN)-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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
While Noura Berrouba, member of the Governing Body of the European Youth Parliament (EYP), asked what many of us are thinking: