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Social Media in Saudi Arabia

Photo: Hassan Ammar/AP

I often find myself plagued with the same moral dilemma. I want to visit Saudi Arabia–visit my family, make a pilgrimage to Mecca, familiarize myself with the breathtaking scenery. But while I enjoy the mental picture patrolling sandy scenery supported by glamorous Jeddah palm trees, I can’t seem to find it in myself to bring that image to life. My fantasies are always short-lived upon remembering that I’m a feminist, an ally to the LGBTQ+ community, and fully aware that the country of Saudi Arabia is not a solid representation of Muslim values. 

I simply have no desire to support a government that chooses affluence over its people time and time again, wages a war with lands already suffering, bolsters the rich and silences the rest. However, last year, I learned that many of the biggest social influencers of today don’t carry this same crushing dilemma. 

Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has spent millions of dollars on his PR campaign to rectify the kingdom’s public image in the west. The first time I heard about Salman’s image-building endeavors was in October of last year when Western social influencers were flown out on an all-expenses paid trip to the country. Additionally, in mid-December, there was a music festival in Riyadh that was reportedly another part of the image-building campaign and has brought just as many influencers and controversy.

While I understand that airbrushed detox tea-sponsored and overtly waist-cinching corset-selling Instagram models are not the ideal moral compasses, it’s interesting to note that this is another instance of how little research or thought they put into their sponsorships. Influencers that have profited off the LGBTQ+ community in the past, such as Armie Hammer or that often speak on feminist issues, like Winnie Harlow, were among the list of attendees in December.

The media certainly hasn’t failed to write about Salman’s attempts to alter Saudi public image. Guardian Australia reached out to 50 influencers and had a select number cancel their interviews moments prior to the session, claiming that Saudi government instructed them not to speak to the media. To hear that the influencers are permitted to post filtered photos with dull captions, but not to speak to the media about their experience sends a message that completely contradicts the goal of this project. 

Renowned model and actress, Emily Ratajakowski, detested the campaign and called out her peers that played a role in it. “I have always wanted to visit Saudi Arabia, but when a recent opportunity came to me involving making and promoting an appearance there, I had to decline,” She said in a statement to Diet Prada

“It is very important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression and the right to a free press. I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there.” She also added, “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.”

Though I agree that Western media often pushes a rather extreme narrative of women’s treatment in Saudi Arabia, and the entire Middle East for that matter, I still refuse to accept the country’s progressive reforms until Saudi women activists are released from jail. I can’t accept that the kingdom is changing for the better until they stop their involvement in the crisis in Yemen or until the influencers that took part in this image rehabilitation campaign are allowed to speak to the media. I’m always hesitant to speak on the oppressive nature of Saudi government because I don’t believe that the US is the epitome of social progression either. I’m an American student with no answers to what’s the best for the Saudi people. While I have very little contact with the country itself, I know that paying big names to post happily while continuing to silence the media is inherently hypocritical.