Is Mariah Carey championing gender desegregation by performing in Saudi Arabia? Or is she becoming a pawn in the country’s PR campaign while ignoring its human rights abuses—particularly against women protesting its traditionally repressive policies?
These are the questions many are asking as Carey makes her first concert appearance in the kingdom on Thursday—an appearance at King Abdullah Economic City, in tandem with the Saudi International golf tournament, which will include four of the world’s top five golfers. Ostensibly, the events are happening as a result of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s relaxing of decades-long restrictions on entertainment and music.
However, many women’s rights advocates say Carey’s appearance comes at the expense of the many prominent Saudi female activists detained by the country since last May. Via social media and formal petition, activists collectively urged Carey to cancel or make her appearance conditional upon release of the detainees. However, Carey’s show will be going on as planned—likely as this article goes to post.
As reported by the Associated Press via Page Six, Carey’s publicists issued a somewhat ironic statement about the issue, saying that when “presented with the offer to perform for an international and mixed gender audience in Saudi Arabia, Mariah accepted the opportunity as a positive step towards the dissolution of gender segregation.”
“As the first female international artist to perform in Saudi Arabia, Mariah recognizes the cultural significance of this event and will continue to support global efforts towards equality for all,” the statement added.
Carey is just the latest celeb to perform in the country in recent months. Page Six notes that The Black Eyed Peas, Enrique Iglesias and DJ David Guetta all performed concerts at a Formula-E car race in Riyadh in December. But as the biggest star to perform since Saudi Arabia’s attempted image overhaul—and certainly since the murder of Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October—the implicit endorsement in Carey’s appearance cannot be ignored.
“The Saudi government is using entertainment to distract the people from human rights abuses because it can sense the anger among the public,” said political refugee and activist Omaima Al-Najjar. Although she has fled the country, Al-Najjar is the co-founder of Women for Rights in Saudi Arabia (WARSA), which launched the petition pressuring Carey to reconsider her concert there, maintaining that the current emphasis on entertainment is a distraction from the kingdom’s war in nearby Yemen and ongoing human rights offenses.
“[S]he has power to stand for women,” Al-Najjar said of Carey, “as an artist and as a female.”
Activist and expat Alia al-Hathloul has been one of the most vocal in opposition to Carey’s concert, posting a series of blistering tweets to and about about the singer-songwriter’s participation. Alia is the sister of women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who remains in Saudi custody, reportedly subjected to torture and death threats. Notably, Loujain was one of many female activists instrumental in compelling the country to lift its ban against women drivers.
But if the opposition of Saudi-born activists hasn’t been enough to deter Carey, her concert, which will also include sets by DJ Tiesto, has reportedly also infuriated some of the kingdom’s ultraconservatives, who take issue with its proximity to the holy site of Mecca, a two-hour drive from the concert venue.
Of course, this is not the first time Carey has come under fire for performing for an oppressive regime—or being associated with questionable behavior—nor is she the only internationally known star to do so. In 2011, Rolling Stone and industry insiders called out Carey, Beyoncé, Usher, Lionel Richie and many other artists who performed for the family of the notoriously brutal former Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi for highly lucrative fees—Carey’s was reported to be one million for four songs.
With that in mind, I’m not sure why the news that she’s accepting what is likely another astronomical performance fee from Saudi Arabia should come as a surprise, but from the woman who recently stood in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, perhaps what many were hoping for was some socially conscious growth. But undoubtedly, as Saudi Arabia continues to rehab its image, Carey won’t be the last major star faced with this moral dilemma. Here’s hoping some others take a stand for human rights.