Social media stars have been taking paid trips to the kingdom and posting lavish praise in return – avoiding its troubling human rights record
On Instagram, blonde, blue-eyed women wearing abayas in the dusty landscape beckon millions of followers to rethink their perception of Saudi Arabia.
The country has employed the public relations company Gateway KSA, of which Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud is an executive member, as one method of bringing social media personalities to the country on all-expenses paid, supervised trips.
Influencers are chauffeured around in helicopters, taken scuba diving in the Red Sea, put up in lofty hotels and driven out to an ancient, unfinished tomb in the Al Ula desert, and have all published resoundingly positive posts.
Guardian Australia contacted almost 50 influencers who appeared to have accepted sponsored trips or been paid for advertisements. Two of them who were posting photos of Saudi Arabia to five Instagram accounts with a combined 4.65m followers cancelled five minutes before an arranged interview. They say the Saudi tourism board sent a group message asking influencers not to speak to media.
A few weeks ago the absolute monarchy announced it was introducing a tourist visa, open to 49 nationalities, including Australians. It also pledged it would allow unmarried foreign men and women to share hotel rooms. Previously the kingdom had been off limits for most tourists.
The influencers were enlisted in the lead-up to the announcement to soften the country’s image and gloss over human rights abuses.
There is a long list of rules for visitors to observe, including dressing modestly, not showing public affection, and not drinking alcohol. It is also illegal to display sympathy towards Qatar, practise homosexual acts, practise a religion other than Islam, or make comments online that ridicule or criticise religion, the Saudi royal family, Saudi Arabia or its leadership.