Influencers can and will shill for anything, or anyone, at any time. On Instagram, Kim and Khloé Kardashian have hawked Flat Tummy Tea, a diarrhea-inducing weight-loss beverage, while Floyd Mayweather Jr. endorsed a crypto-currency later revealed to be a scam, and models including Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski promoted the sham Fyre Festival.
Although it’s common to see paid promotion on social media, some sponsored content is more ethically dubious than others. The pinnacle: government-funded trips to Saudi Arabia, a country with a laundry list of human-rights abuses (from arresting journalists to denying women their rights and outlawing certain religions).
On these vacations, social-media stars give dispatches from the kingdom to their hundreds of thousands of followers as if it’s just the latest exciting travel destination. They post pictures with captions like: “#ad When I was a kid, I used to watch Aladdin… never did I think I could live it too 😍 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
In the past few years, photos and videos of luxurious events and vacations in the country have become inescapable on social media. On Instagram, there are more than 150,000 posts with the tags #visitsaudi, #visitsaudiarabia, #welcometoarabia, and #explorearabia. In July, the popular YouTuber Christian LeBlanc posted a vlog about his second trip to Saudi Arabia, which was paid for by the Saudi Tourism Authority, the country’s tourism board. “I’ve realized [that] the world is not a scary place whatsoever and [that] Saudi Arabia is a beautiful country,” he says while waiting for his car and driver to take him to the Four Seasons in Riyadh.
“We’re going to the opening of Seasons, which is basically like a giant cultural festival,” LeBlanc says in his vlog. “It’s kind of like their way of letting the world know that the old Saudi Arabia is opening up and it’s letting in all of the modern culture.” His hotel was less than six miles away from the Ritz-Carlton, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman detained and allegedly tortured hundreds of powerful Saudis—including members of his own family—from 2017 to 2019 in an effort to seize total control over the kingdom.
LeBlanc is part of a larger push on the part of the Saudi government to rebrand from a conservative, oppressive regime to an emerging cultural hub aligned with the Western world. And what better way to make this happen than to pay influencers who either know nothing about the abuses or don’t care enough to turn down the money.
The first major public scolding for influencers was in 2019, as Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s-rights activist, was being tortured in a Saudi prison because she had campaigned against her country’s male-guardianship laws. (Those laws bar women from traveling abroad and marrying without the consent of a male relative.) Meanwhile, the Saudi Arabian government invited influencers from around the world to attend MDLBeast, an electronic-music festival in Riyadh. It was part of Vision 2030, bin Salman’s economic program that seeks to modernize the kingdom.
MDLBeast party recruits included actors (such as Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon’s ex-husband; and a pre-scandal Armie Hammer), hotshot models (like former Victoria’s Secret Angels Elsa Hosk, Irina Shayk, and Jourdan Dunn), and big-time influencers (Sofia Richie and Olivia Culpo).
“It’s kind of like their way of letting the world know that the old Saudi Arabia is opening up and it’s letting in all of the modern culture.”
Unsurprisingly, the public reaction to the posts from the Great Sponsored Saudi Vacation of 2019 was rage. Diet Prada, a popular Instagram account devoted to calling out designers, models, and socialites, criticized MDLBeast attendees for rehabilitating “the image of Saudi Arabia, a country said to be causing ‘the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.’” The post got more than 116,000 likes.
Many of the influencers dealt with the overwhelming backlash by either ignoring comments or quietly deleting their posts. But not Phillippe. In response to criticism about the country’s persecution of gay people—homosexuality is a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, although those convicted sometimes face lesser punishments, such as flogging or prison time—Phillippe said, “I’ve made many gay and lesbian friends here. You don’t know shit.”
Despite the bad publicity, the influencers eventually returned. In December 2021, for the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the country’s inaugural Formula One race, Justin Bieber, Jason Derulo, A$AP Rocky, David Guetta, and Tiësto performed, while models like Shanina Shaik and Sara Sampaio attended as guests of the Saudi Ministry of Sport. The fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was murdered in 2018 on the orders of bin Salman, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post begging Bieber to boycott the event so as to “send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics.”
The Canadian pop star took the stage in an oversize red jumpsuit and performed his biggest hits. Bieber did not address the criticism but instead wrote, “Thank u Saudi arabia,” in an Instagram he posted after the performance.
The Saudi tourism board isn’t soliciting only brand-name stars—they’re also targeting Internet influencers with more niche followings. The Saudi government is paying Alyne Tamir, an Israeli-American travel influencer with three million Facebook followers, $10,000 to visit the kingdom next month. The tourism board will also be covering her expenses, including airfare and accommodations, throughout the trip. In return, she just has to post two photos or videos about her vacation on social media.
Tamir spoke to me from Istanbul, on a trip organized by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and explained that her upcoming vacation was being facilitated by influencer.com, a global influencer agency. She estimated that they take 10 to 20 influencers to Saudi Arabia every week. (Influencer.com did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I felt hesitation, definitely,” she said of accepting the trip. “Obviously, Saudi has a bad reputation. I was like, Do I want to accept money to go to Saudi? It makes it feel kind of sketchy,” especially, she explained, because she highlights social injustices on her Facebook page.
Even so, she agreed to go—partly because she intended to visit Saudi Arabia anyway. “Why should I go on my own when the tourism board is literally going to show me around?,” Tamir said. “They don’t ask for any specific narrative. They just say, ‘Post two things.’ They can show me whatever their narrative is and then I can talk about my own narrative in a few months, when I’m gone and the deal is over.” Before she comes to conclusions about how the government treats women, she said, she wants to “see the vibe” and “talk to the locals.”
Tamir can already anticipate the criticism: “I know people will be like, Why are you going to a country with terrible human rights?” Her life goal is to travel to every country in the world, she said, explaining that despite her religion and gender, she’s been “dying to go to Iran.” (A poor choice of words; a few days ago, in Tehran, a 22-year-old woman arrested by Iran’s “morality police” for a dress-code violation died in police custody.)
There is no Rubicon this influencer won’t cross. “I would also go to North Korea,” she said. “And I would go for free.”
To hear Eve Peyser reveal more about her story, listen to her on AIR MAIL’s Morning Meeting podcast
Eve Peyser is an Oregon-based freelance writer