Encouraging celebrities to speak up, the push-back campaign is a countermeasure against Saudi Arabia’s efforts to use influential people to whitewash its human rights violations.
Countering Saudi Arabia’s efforts to soften its image, a campaign launched by Human Rights Watch has roped in celebrities, musicians, athletes, influencers and artists, whose platform the international rights group is using to inform the public about the Kingdom’s large-scale human rights violations.
To dilute the negative press coverage the country has received, particularly after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi in 2018, Riyadh has hosted several extravagant entertainment sports and cultural events.
#SaudiRegrets campaign aims to counter such efforts by educating the celebrities who were courted by the kingdom to play or perform in the country.
Public executions, arbitrary arrests and intimidation of dissidents, activists and intellectuals are among the Saudi transgressions often criticised at international platforms, including the United Nations. Prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul still remains behind bars along with three other activists arrested in 2018.
Many celebrities and influencers from the West have come under criticism for engaging with Saudi-hosted events. However, BTS, Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Jennifer Lopez, and David Guetta are among the top-rated celebrities who brushed aside criticism and accepted Saudi's invitation.
“Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
“So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses.”
Some celebrities, on the other hand, including rapper Nicki Minaj, Emily Ratajkowski, and John Cena cancelled their trip to Saudi Arabia after backlash or didn’t accept the invite due to the Kingdom’s human rights record. In 2019, a talent agency, Endeavor returned Saudi Arabia’s $400 million investment from the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund in protest to the killing of Khashoggi.
For HRW, having more such voices could raise awareness about those issues that, as the Kingdom gets ready for Formula 1 Grand Prix race in 2021 -- a further attempt that the organisation says aiming “to deflect attention.”
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s 2030 vision
The Kingdom’s Mohammad bin Salman has sharpened focus on the General Entertainment Authority that was founded in 2016, a year before he was appointed as the Crown Prince.
Besides the human rights record censured by two dozen largely western countries, plummeting oil prices due to the coronavirus pandemic have been threatening the kingdom’s enormous wealth.
In September, the kingdom announced opening itself to foreign tourism and for the first time began issuing visas to non-religious tourists from 49 countries.