From utilising celebrity influencers to attempting to rectify widespread human rights abuses, Saudi Arabia is pulling out all kinds of stops in order to modernize – a feat propelled by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Recently, the Kingdom announced that it would be banning flogging as a form of punishment, replacing it with prison sentences or fines instead. This marks a significant change for the country, as flogging was used to punish a series of crimes ranging from blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality. However, other draconian measures like beheading for murder and amputations for theft remain in use. Activists have also called to attention that shortly before the decision, a prominent human rights campaigner died in prison due to medical neglect.

Two days after the decision was announced, Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commissioner revealed that the country will no longer be imposing the death penalty on those who committed crimes as minors.

“The decree helps us in establishing a more modern penal code and demonstrates the Kingdom’s commitment to following through on key reforms across all sectors of our country as part of Vision 2030, directly supervised by the Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman,” said Awwad Alawwad, President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) on Monday.

Another milestone for the nation, however once again, one that doesn’t go far enough. In 2019 alone, 184 people were executed in the Kingdom. In the Crown Prince’s 5-year rule, roughly 800 executions have taken place. While it’s an improvement that children are removed from this equation, the culture of executions is still commonplace in the country.

After the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, bin Salman has been dedicated to rebranding Saudi Arabia’s negative global image while attracting tourism and foreign direct investment. Last year, the Crown Prince announced a series of reforms for women’s rights which included a lift on a ban of women drivers – the only nation to still have a ban on women driving – and the ability to receive a passport without a male guardian present. However, on closer inspection, the power a male guardian has supersedes any new reforms for women.

Read more: Are Saudi Arabia’s New Reforms for Women a Front?

Influencer Marketing

Last year, Saudi Arabia played host to an electronic music festival that saw the likes of David Guetta and Steve Aoki perform. Saudi Arabia used this opportunity as a form of image rehabilitation, employing actors, models and other influencers to create content in favour of the country. However, the move sparked widespread outrage. Many called out the strategy as propaganda, citing the death of Khashoggi – which occurred only a year before – and the rampant human rights abuses happening in the country and the humanitarian crisis it wages in Yemen.

View this post on Instagram

What’s worse than an all white @revolve influencer trip? Cashing big fat checks in exchange for #content creation (aka propaganda) to rehabilitate the image of Saudi Arabia, a country said to be causing “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, according to the United Nations. According to anonymous sources, six-figure sums were offered for attendance and geo-tagged posts. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Following the government’s pre-meditated murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi in October 2018 , the arrest of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul in May 2018, the outing of a gay Saudi journalist and his partner who began receiving death threats from their families (homosexuality is a crime in Saudi Arabia and punishable by death), and countless other human rights abuses, a bevy of supermodels, influencers, celebrities, and musicians convened in Riyadh for the inaugural @mdlbeast . According to @hypebeast , the electronic music festival is “one of the most significant musical events the region has ever seen”. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Saudi Arabia has been spending billions to change its image in the west, but this is sure to be the most expensive campaign yet. In a series of Instagram stories posted by transgender model @teddy_quinlivan , it was revealed that fellow model @emrata had turned down the trip, evidently aware of the country’s human rights crisis. “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”, said Ratajkowski in a statement to Diet Prada. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Unfortunately, not all shared the same sentiments. There are simply too many attendees to name. Dieters, feel free to tag any attendees you know of… just in case they haven’t been reading the news. • #propoganda #jamalkashoggi #humanrights #humanrightsabuse #lgbtq #lgbtqrights #freespeech #journalism #independent #womensrights #mdlbeast #edm #electronicmusic #supermodel #influencer #content #riyadh #emrata #emilyratajkowski #teddyquinlivan #model #celebrity #dj #electronicmusic #musicfestival #wtf #smh #government #corruption #dietprada

A post shared by Diet Prada ™ (@diet_prada) on

While it may appear as though Saudi Arabia is making significant strides in addressing human rights abuses, underneath the surface, women are still being arrested, dissents are still being murdered and the country still evades accountability. Until the country takes responsibility to uphold all basic human rights, its attempt at surface rebranding may not see fruit to form a more modern and progressive image.

Aisha Mohamed