As well as skinny tea endorsements and sponsored posts flogging teeth whitening products, social media influencers can now make a few extra bucks helping to improve Saudi Arabia’s image.
According to The Guardian, influencers are now being sent on all expenses-paid, supervised holidays to Saudi Arabia to help generate positive social media posts about the country.
Gateway KSA, the organisation behind the influencer push, says it is opening “the door to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, giving today’s best and brightest students the chance to experience this evolving global powerhouse from a unique perspective.”
It sounds like Gateway KSA is selling the tours as a way of learning more about Saudi Arabia, but Dr Raihan Ismail, an associate lecturer at the centre for Arab and Islamic studies at ANU, says it’s all part of a much bigger billion-dollar image reform.
“The Saudi government is investing so much in trying to reconstruct its image, particularly after the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Turkey,” she told The Guardian. “I think that’s when people started to realise that we’re dealing with an authoritarian regime. We’re dealing with a state that is so repressive.”
Instagram posts from the likes of travel vlogger Jay Alvarrez, Travel in her Shoes blogger Aggie and Aussie influencer Tara Milk Tea feature fancy Saudi hotels, scenes from the Red Sea, ancient tombs and jaw-dropping views.
While the posts have been received well from most followers, others are claiming that they fail to mention any of the negative headlines to come out of Saudi Arabia in recent times. In the seemingly sponsored posts there is no mention of violence against women, beheadings or the Saudi-led airstrikes on Yemen.
“Sometimes you have to pick a stand,” Ismail told The Guardian. “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept. If you see the country violating human rights. Do you turn a blind eye or do you take a stand?”
Clearly, there are influencers who are fine with turning a blind eye, but not everyone is happy to oblige. For example, Nicki Minaj recently cancelled an upcoming performance at Saudi Arabia music festival in support of women and the LGBT community.
After receiving backlash for accepting a trip to the kingdom from Gateway KSA last year, photographer Gab Scanu told The Guardian “I don’t agree with ‘influencers’ travelling there and commenting on issues they’re not educated in.”
Scanu has a point – before accepting a free trip for Insta followers or social media clout, it’s probably best to do your research first, or it could risk you more than a few unfollows.