Actors Armie Hammer and Ed Westwick, model Alessandra Ambrosio and more stars are receiving criticism for their decisions to attend and promote MDL Beast, a three-day music festival that occurred over the weekend in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
The lineup featured dozens of high-energy acts, such as Steve Aoki, David Guetta and Afrojack — plus plenty of colorful rave lights and face paint. Such a gathering was an anomaly, however, in Saudi Arabia, which has a controversial reputation for enforcing extreme conservative values, particularly on women and members of the LGBTQ community.
While some of the celebrity guests seemed to believe they were participating in a movement toward change in the kingdom, which has seen gradual progress under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, others accused the famous influencers of selling out to rehabilitate the country’s image.
“What I just witnessed was truly special,” Hammer wrote on Instagram. “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.”
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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
Many were quick to chastise the “Call Me By Your Name” actor in the comments, calling his actions “questionable” and pointing out that women and members of the LGBTQ community in Saudi Arabia still face human-rights violations. Several also mentioned journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, whose killing has been linked to the royal court, though the kingdom has insisted Prince Mohammed was not involved.
“How much did Mohammed Bin Salman pay you to say this?” one user wrote, amassing more than 1,600 likes.
Model and Instagram influencer Emily Ratajkowski reportedly turned down an invitation to the concert, telling social media brand Diet Prada, “It is very important to 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.”
Saudi Arabia has recently loosened some of its policies, now allowing women to drive and travel without a man’s permission, attend sporting events in stadiums, and sit with men, unsegregated, at restaurants, according to the Associated Press. Additionally, the country began issuing tourist visas this year, without requiring female visitors to wear the conservative black-flowing robe known as the abaya and headscarves in public.
However, women still need approval to marry, cannot live on their own, and if they go to a shelter, cannot leave without a male guardian receiving them.
Earlier this year, singer and rapper Nicki Minaj pulled out of a scheduled performance in Saudi Arabia after much backlash and “careful reflection.”
“While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression,” Minaj said in a July statement to the Associated Press.
Among MDL Beast’s other star supporters were models Ambrosio, Halima Aden and Joan Smalls, as well as “Gossip Girl” alum Westwick, Ryan Phillippe and Wilmer Valderrama. Some, including Aden and Ambrosio, flagged their posts from the event as ads, while others did not.