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Saudi Arabia: ‘Image Laundering’ Conceals Abuses

New Human Rights Watch Campaign Against Whitewashing Rights Violations

(Beirut) – The Saudi government has spent billions of dollars hosting major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events as a deliberate strategy to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator, Human Rights Watch said today. On October 2, 2020, Human Rights Watch launched a global campaign to counter Saudi government efforts to whitewash its dismal rights record.

The two years since the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in October 2018 has brought no accountability for top-level officials implicated in the murder. Since then, the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has aggressively organized and bankrolled high-profile events featuring major international artists, celebrities, and sports figures, with plans for many more. Saudi Arabia also currently holds the presidency of the G20, a forum for international economic cooperation, and will host the G20 leaders’ summit in late November.

“Saudi citizens and residents should enjoy top-notch entertainment and sporting events, but they also should enjoy basic rights such as free expression and peaceful assembly,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “So, when Hollywood A-listers, international athletes, and other global celebrities take government money to perform in Saudi Arabia while staying silent on the government’s atrocious rights record, they are boosting the kingdom’s strategy of whitewashing Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s abuses.”

The investment in major entertainment, cultural, and sports events is tied to Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a plan to overhaul the country’s economy and attract foreign investors and tourists. Among the programs it has developed to realize its vision is one focused on creating more leisure and recreational options to “enhance the image of the Kingdom internationally.” 

Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in creating a local entertainment industry and attracting top talent from across the globe. In May 2016, it created the General Entertainment Authority, with plans to invest US$64 billion in music, entertainment, sports, art, and film, among others. The Sports, Tourism, and Culture ministries are also involved.

Among those who have performed since 2018 are: Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, Andrea Bocelli, Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Jennifer Lopez, and David Guetta. Major sporting events include the 2020 Dakar Rally, the Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament, and WWE pay-per-view professional wrestling events. The country will also host a Formula 1 race beginning in 2023.

Such events can serve to counteract negative scrutiny of the Saudi government’s human rights violations, including the Khashoggi murder, and undermine efforts to hold Saudi officials accountable, Human Rights Watch said.

Mohammed bin Salman’s creation of an entertainment industry has been adopted alongside advancements for women and youth. While extensive and important, these changes have also helped obscure a dramatic curtailing in civil and political rights since Mohammed bin Salman became crown prince in 2017. While the emerging entertainment industry was being lauded internationally, Saudi authorities were simultaneously carrying out waves of arbitrary arrests of dissidents, activists, intellectuals, and royal family members.

Likewise, promoting cultural and social life has helped Saudi Arabia avoid scrutiny of its role in the armed conflict in Yemen. Under Mohammad bin Salman’s leadership as defense minister, the Saudi-led coalition has since 2015 bombed homes, markets, schools, hospitals, and mosques in unlawful attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians, some of which may amount to war crimes.

Human Rights Watch will seek to counter Saudi efforts to whitewash abuses through an outreach campaign to inform the entertainment and sports industries about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, including top celebrities, performers, and sports figures. The campaign will also seek out organizers and participants in major international events sponsored by the Saudi government, calling on them to speak out publicly on rights issues or, when laundering is the primary purpose, not to participate.

Since Khashoggi’s murder, a number of celebrities and social media influencers have declined trips to Saudi Arabia, citing its terrible human rights record. They include: Nicki Minaj, Emily Ratajkowski, Martha Hunt, John Cena, and Daniel Bryan. Richard Branson suspended his partnership with Saudi Arabia for his space tourism venture. In March 2019, the talent agency Endeavour returned a $400 million investment by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

“The Saudi government has gone all-out in the past two years to bury Jamal Khashoggi’s murder under public spectacles and sporting events,” Page said. “Until there is real accountability for this and other crimes by the Saudi leadership, those silently benefiting from the kingdom’s largess risk being an accomplice in whitewashing Saudi abuses.”

The Business of Image Laundering

Bolstering reputation is big business. Public relations firms explicitly sell the promise of a better reputation, but many other business relationships, especially those involving prominent entertainers, athletes, and politicians, also offer valuable reputational benefits. Governments have long recognized the soft power of public relations firms and celebrities to shape perceptions of their policies. While that power can be used for beneficial purposes, such as to boost tourism or local products, when leaders turn to public relations firms or celebrities to whitewash poor human rights records, it can deflect efforts to hold them accountable for these abuses.

The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights call on businesses to conduct due diligence to identify and mitigate human rights risks related to their activities. Such due diligence should include the risk of laundering the reputations of governments, businesses, or individuals responsible for ongoing or recent serious rights abuses. A credible due diligence process would identify if the business’ client or an affiliate of the event in which it is participating has engaged in abusive activity, evaluate the risk of the business relationship laundering abuses, and develop a strategy to mitigate that risk.

The reputation-laundering process can take many forms, including cases in which a business relationship involves or creates significant risk of covering up, justifying, or denying specific human rights violations or undermining efforts for accountability. If an event is part of a deliberate effort to distract from specific rights abuses, it may also be considered reputation laundering.

In keeping with their human rights responsibilities under the UN guidelines, businesses should not deliberately enter into a business relationship whose sole or primary purpose is to deny or cover up human rights violations. When a business relationship predominantly serves another purpose, but there is a significant risk of such reputation-laundering as a result of the relationship, the business should seek to mitigate this impact. This could be done by speaking out about those abuses that the business relationship risks helping obscure.

Businesses should also refrain from activities that would bolster the reputation of government entities or officials recently and credibly accused of serious abuses. Finally, businesses should not agree to any explicit or implicit contractual terms that restrict their ability to speak out in public or in private about such abuses, as distinct from standard confidentiality requirements.

Saudi Arabia’s Image-Enhancing Efforts

The Saudi government has recognized that hosting global celebrities and major entertainment and sporting events is a powerful means to launder its reputation and convince international investors to invest in the country despite pervasive human rights violations. The government has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into this strategy, aimed at offsetting the scrutiny and reporting of human rights organizations and domestic activists on human rights. But the expansion of entertainment options for Saudi citizens and greater tolerance for diverse artistic expression does not offset the deterioration of civil and political rights over the same period.

Saudi Arabia’s strategies around cultivating public entertainment events are explicitly laid out in its Vision 2030 plan, which commits to “enhanc[ing] the role of government funds … creating partnerships with international entertainment corporations” and even providing land and venues “suitable for cultural and entertainment projects.”

Saudi government bodies have dramatically increased the number of high-profile public entertainment events hosted in the country, which have included international celebrities, artists, and athletes. These bodies include the General Entertainment Authority and the Tourism, Sports, and Culture ministries. This increase in public entertainment events is tied to one of the 13 programs developed to help realize Vision 2030 and achieve its strategic goals. The Quality of Life Program’s “delivery plan” lists multiple leisure and recreational initiatives, in part aimed at creating “a positive image of the kingdom internationally.” The delivery plan also references “enhancing the image of Saudi Arabia through the use of sports diplomacy,” and creating a film industry to help increase the country’s “soft power through film production.”

The General Entertainment Authority was created in 2016 to organize and develop the entertainment sector and support its infrastructure. It plans to invest billions of dollars in music, entertainment, sports, art, and film, among others. The authority is headed by Turki Al al-Sheikh, a close adviser to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Al-Sheikh has repeatedly thanked Mohammad bin Salman publicly for his support of these entertainment events. Since the Khashoggi murder in October 2018, Saudi Arabia has dramatically increased the number of high-profile festivals and concerts by well-known artists.

Recent prominent events and performers include:

  • Saudi Invitational Golf Tournament concert (January 2019): Mariah Carey and DJ Tiesto
  • Jeddah World Fest (July 2019): Janet Jackson, Liam Payne, Chris Brown, 50 Cent, Tyga, Future, and Steve Aoki
  • Riyadh Season (October-December 2019): BTS, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, Usher, Akon, and Gipsy Kings by Andre Reyes
  • Diriya Season (November-December 2019): Imagine Dragons, Clean Bandit, Maluma, Marshmello, Pitbull, Shaggy, Lil Wayne, Future, Usher, Akon, Calvin Harris, Major Lazer, and Swedish House Mafia 
  • Saudi Invitational golf tournament concert (January 2020): Bryan Adams, Gipsy Kings, and Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike 
  • Winter at Tantora Festival (February-March 2020): Yanni, Enrique Iglesias, and Gipsy Kings Winter (featuring Nicolas Reyes & Tonino Baliardo), Craig David and Lionel Richie, Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, and Jamirouqai

Hosting major sporting events has emerged as a major part of Saudi Arabia’s strategy, which Human Rights Watch has called “sportswashing” – an effort to distract from serious human rights abuses by hosting events that celebrate human achievement. However, Saudi Arabia’s newfound enthusiasm for sports comes as major sport federations like the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) adopt human rights policies, and as the rules of sport increasingly require adherence to international human rights standards. As businesses, many sports bodies are increasingly under pressure from fans and sponsors not to bring major events to rights-abusing hosts. In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s bid to host an expanded 2022 football World Cup failed in part due to human rights concerns.

Beginning in January 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund attempted to purchase the English Premier League football club Newcastle United F.C., but the bid stalled and was eventually rejected by the Premier League. Human Rights Watch called on the Premier League to take human rights into consideration as it evaluated the sale and to adopt a comprehensive human rights policy.

Major sporting events hosted by Saudi Arabia include:

  • World Heavyweight Title boxing rematch between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua, in December 2019
  • WWE pay-per-view events: WWE Super ShowDown 2020, WWE Crown Jewel 2019, WWE Super ShowDown 2019, WWE Crown Jewel 2018, and WWE Greatest Royal Rumble
  • Spanish Super Cup (January 2020), including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Valencia 
  • Italian Super Cup (2018, 2019)  
  • 2020 Dakar Rally (January 5-17, 2020)
  • Diriyah E-Prix Formula E Championship (December 2018; November 2019) 
  • Saudi International Golf Tournament (February 2020)
  • Formula 1 Race, starting in 2023 

In addition to hosting domestic entertainment and sporting events, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested millions of dollars in related ventures outside Saudi Arabia. In April 2020, the investment fund purchased a 5.7 percent stake in Live Nation, the parent company of Ticketmaster, a United States ticket sales and distribution company, for $500 million, as well as an 8 percent stake in Carnival Corp., the world’s largest cruise operator, for $370 million.

Abuses under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 immediately cast him in the role of reformer when it launched in 2016. In June 2017, King Salman elevated his son to crown prince, making him next in line to the Saudi throne and de facto day-to-day ruler of the country. Positive changes for women and youth, combined with a major push for foreign direct investment into the world’s largest oil producing country and lavishly funded public relations efforts, promoted a positive image for the crown prince on the international political scene. During the crown prince’s visits to the United Kingdom and US in March 2018, officials, businesspeople, and celebrities alike lauded him.

A darker reality lay behind the glamor and pomp and the advancements for Saudi women and youth, as the Saudi authorities moved to sideline anyone who could stand in the way of Mohammed bin Salman’s political ascension. In mid-2017, around the time of his promotion to crown prince, authorities quietly reorganized the country’s prosecution service and security apparatus, the primary tools of Saudi repression, and placed them directly under the royal court’s oversight.

The authorities then began a series of arrest campaigns. They targeted prominent clerics, public intellectuals, academics, and human rights activists in September 2017, leading businesspeople and royal family members accused of corruption in November 2017, the country’s most prominent women’s rights advocates beginning in May 2018, and prominent intellectuals and writers in April and November 2019. The arrest waves were often accompanied by defamation and slander of those arrested in the country’s pro-government media.

Detaining citizens for peaceful criticism of the government’s policies or human rights advocacy has long been the Saudi Arabian government’s practice. However, the post-2017 arrests were notable for the sheer number and range of people targeted over a short period, and new repressive practices.

These included holding people at unofficial detention sites, such as holding so-called corruption detainees at the five-star Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh from late 2017 into early 2018, and the prominent women’s rights activists at what they described as a “hotel” or “guesthouse” during mid-2018. There are credible allegations of rampant torture and mistreatment at those sites.

Abusive practices have also included long-term arbitrary detention – two years in some cases – without charge, trial, or any clear legal process. Some of the so-called corruption detainees arrested in late 2017 remain in detention without charge or trial, including Turki bin Abdullah, the son of the late King Abdullah and former governor of Riyadh, and Adel al-Fakih, a former government minister.

The authorities also targeted family members of prominent Saudi dissidents and activists, including imposing arbitrary travel bans. Omar Abdulaziz, a Canada-based Saudi dissident, said that Saudi authorities detained his two brothers in August 2018 to silence his online activism.

Other abusive practices have included extorting financial assets in exchange for releasing detainees, outside of any legal process, and seeking the death penalty for acts that do not resemble recognizable crimes. Saudi prosecutors are currently seeking the death penalty against a reformist religious thinker, Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, on vague charges relating to the expression of his peaceful religious ideas, and against a well-known cleric, Salman al-Awda, on charges stemming solely from his peaceful political statements, associations, and positions. Both were detained during the September 2017 crackdown.

The Saudi authorities have allegedly used commercially available surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of critics of the government and dissidents. Citizen Lab, an academic research center based in Canada, concluded with “high confidence” that in 2018, the mobile phone of a prominent Saudi activist based in Canada was infected with spyware. It allowed full access to a victim’s personal files, such as chats, emails, and photos, as well as the ability to surreptitiously use the phone’s microphones and cameras to view and eavesdrop.

Finally, Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, oversees all Saudi military forces and has served as the commander of the international coalition that has been carrying out a military campaign in Yemen, according to the Saudi Defense Ministry website. Since March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition has carried out scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes on civilians and civilian objects in Yemen, hitting homes, schools, hospitals, markets, and mosques. Many of these violations of international humanitarian law may amount to war crimes.

The coalition previously maintained a naval and air blockade on Yemen that had severely restricted the flow of food, fuel, and medicine to civilians. Millions of civilians face hunger, disease, and lack of medical care, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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