“Influencers can and will shill for anything, or anyone, at any time,” says Eve Peyser in Air Mail. But it’s government-funded trips to Saudi Arabia, “a country with a laundry list of human-rights abuses”, that are at the “pinnacle” of moral dubiousness. The Gulf kingdom, helmed by the despotic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, wants “to rebrand from a conservative, oppressive regime to an emerging cultural hub” – and to do that, it pays celebrities to holiday there. One agency takes an estimated 10 to 20 influencers to Saudi Arabia every week.
Those signed up rave about the country, posting pictures with captions like: “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.” They don’t always escape “public scolding”, however. A Saudi jolly at an electronic music festival in 2019, held at the same time as a women’s-rights activist was being tortured in prison, didn’t help the image of the Hollywood actors and “hotshot models” who attended. When Justin Bieber agreed to perform at last year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in 2018 on the orders of MBS, publicly urged the singer to boycott the event. He ignored her, posting an Instagram picture of him performing in an oversized red jumpsuit, captioned: “Thank u Saudi arabia”.