Actor Armie Hammer in a traditional Saudi ghutra, MDL Beast Festival stage, and Sofia Richie at the festival.
Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images, all

  • Multiple influencers and celebrities sparked criticism for attending a music festival in Saudi Arabia despite the country's lengthy record of human-rights abuses.
  • Some of the most notable attendees included DJ Steve Aoki, actor Armie Hammer, models Winnie Harlow and Alessandra Ambrosio, and social-media figures like Sofia Richie and Scott Disick.
  • A post by Diet Prada, a fashion and culture commentary Instagram account, called out the influencer attendees for "cashing big fat checks" by participating in the country's effort to rehabilitate its image. It's unclear if the celebrities and influencers were paid (and if they were, how much.)
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Scores of influencers and celebrities are being criticised for flocking to Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh for the MDL Beast festival, images of which then flooded the social feeds of various musicians, models, and celebrities.

As was previously reported by Insider, the Saudi government has in the past gifted all-expenses-paid tours Instagram influencers to offer a curated experience that they can document and share to improve the country's reputation and spark tourism industry, and gloss over the country's track record of human-rights abuses.

According to reports and photos posted online of the music festival, some of the most well-known attendees were actors and musicians including Armie Hammer, Ed Westwick, Ryan Phillippe, and DJ Steve Aoki, alongside models Winnie Harlow, Alessandra Ambrosio, Stella Maxwell, and social media figures like Sofia Richie and Scott Disick.

Diet Prada, a fashion and culture commentary Instagram account, offered one of the first critiques of the influencer-magnet event in a post that rounded up photos from the festival in addition to allegations of paid appearances and criticism from other models and fashion heavyweights.

The caption on the post called attendees out for "cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia."

The post also referenced some of the kingdom's most notable human-rights abuses, including the brutal October 2018, killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives, the May 2018, arrest and deportation of women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul.

In one photo posted by Richie, the caption "Saudi girls" was roundly criticized, given that women's rights activists have been detained and allegedly tortured, as Insider previously reported.

Richie posted the picture from Riyadh's posh Ritz-Carlton hotel, the same hotel that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman used to detain an undetermined number of prominent Saudis who were held under the guise of anti-corruption efforts.

A screenshot posted by Diet Prada also showed screengrabs from Teddy Quinlivan's Instagram, criticizing influencers who attended and revealing that Emily Ratajkowski had turned down the festival.

In the Instagram post, Diet Prada referenced the practice of the Saudi government to pay for trips for influencers. Journalist Yashar Ali also posted to Twitter saying, "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."

Previously, in seeking to shake its existing reputation involving brutal human-rights abuses and the oppression of women, the government composed luxe travel packages to open up the previously guarded country to prominent influencers that can be seen in posts from figures like Scott Disick and Jay Alvarrez.

Influencers told Insider's Bill Bostock that it appeared the government had devoted a massive amount of money and resources to the effort, and some said they declined the trips on principle.

Karen Attiah, the global opinions editor at The Washington Post, and Khashoggi's former editor tweeted to praise Diet Prada's post and call out "the dark side of influencer culture is that it really is the ultimate expression of capitalism."

"Money over human lives," Attiah wrote. "What good is your platform if you overlook the Saudi regime's murder and torture for a few bucks? These influencers are just for-hire human billboards."

Attiah also noted on Twitter that women's fashion and lifestyle magazine Glamour accepted a paid social media campaign with the festival, which partially included posts on the magazine's Instagram account that offered an inside look at the event.

At the center of several of the high-profile invites appears to be Mohammed Al Turki, a Saudi film producer whom GQ Middle East wrote in September 2018 "has become a key catalyst in the rapid expansion of Saudi's film and arts culture."

Al Turki told the magazine that his goal was to develop a "whole film scene in Saudi, from film festivals to studios to a media city," ultimately making "a full-on film society culture in Saudi."

The producer's Hollywood ties were on full display at the festival, where he was pictured rubbing shoulders with Armie Hammer, who also posted an Instagram photo with the producer, and Ryan Philippe, among others.

Ryan Phillippe, Armie Hammer and Mohammed Al Turki attend the MDL Beast Festival on December 19, 2019 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Insider's requests for comment from Condé Nast and Glamour were not immediately returned.

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