With the holidays right around the corner, we know to expect some serious spon-con. But who was expecting Sofia Richie and Scott Disick’s Saudi Arabia music festival promo? Their latest social media posts came out of left field, with the couple posting photos from Saudi Arabia’s MDL Beast electronic music festival—marketed as “a three-day festival bringing together the best in electronic music, performing arts and culinary craft—just outside of Riyadh.”
But Sofia and Scott weren’t the only stars taking on an influencer role this weekend. A slew of other celebrities, including model Irina Shayk and actors Armie Hammer and Ryan Phillippe, seemed to have accepted a hefty pay-out to attend. And, of course, post about it. Now, many are calling the artists “sellouts” for promoting the event, as it takes place in a country with a troubling human rights record.
Scholars, writers, and critics are weighing in on what they call Saudi Arabia’s attempt to reconstruct its own image following the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate last year. Karen Attiah, Khashoggi’s former editor at the Washington Post, commented an MDL Beast sponsored post in agreement that this spon-con is terribly misplaced. “Jamal believed in social media to be used for good,” she wrote. “It’s shameful that many of Saudi Arabia’s own influencers and activists have been jailed under Mohammed bin Salman. Thank you for using this platform to call out the shamelessness. I’m disgusted.”
It begs the question of how many viewers who like or comment on these stars’ posts have any idea about the gross contractual relationship that goes on behind the scenes. One writer on Twitter, Yashar Ali, purports that “A major film/tv star tells me that she and her husband were offered 8 figures, through their representatives, to go on this trip but declined. 8 figures.” We’re talking tens of millions—all for a propagandistic post.
While many of the stars have yet to comment on the widespread criticism, Hammer has shared his feelings at length on Instagram. “What I just witnessed was truly special. I saw Saudi men and women ecstatic about an event that they never thought they would ever see in their lifetimes… it felt like a cultural shift,” he wrote.
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What I just witnessed was truly special. I saw Saudi men and women ecstatic about an event that they never thought they would ever see in their lifetimes... it felt like a cultural shift. A change. Like Woodstock in the 1960’s. Social evolution is slow and takes time but what I was able to be a part of felt like one giant seed of growth. The people there throwing themselves into the experience will lead a cultural revolution that we all need to get behind and support. #mdlbeast
“A change. Like Woodstock in the 1960’s. Social evolution is slow and takes time but what I was able to be a part of felt like one giant seed of growth,” he added. “The people there throwing themselves into the experience will lead a cultural revolution that we all need to get behind and support. #mdlbeast.” Which, at its very least, is a promising reminder not to hold everyday people accountable for the misgivings of their government.