Last December, Hollywood actor Armie Hammer arrived in Saudi Arabia for a music festival in Riyadh, the gulf kingdom’s capital. A day after the event, in a breathless Instagram post, he compared the festival to “Woodstock in the 1960’s,” his desert surroundings notwithstanding.
Joining him were a mix of A–C-list celebrities like model Sofia Richie and actor Ryan Phillippe, along with a large group of Western travel bloggers. They had been flown out and, in some instances, paid to attend the festival, called MDL Beast. The event, put on by the country’s General Entertainment Authority, a body created by royal decree in 2016, is one of the flashiest examples of influencer marketing ever. In this case, the product they were meant to market was leisure travel to Saudi Arabia, a kingdom ruled by an Islamic monarchy.
The Instagram posts coming out of the festival looked more Coachella than Sharia. Model Jourdan Dunn smized in boxer braids in front of a neon backdrop; Hammer and Phillippe wore traditional checkered kaffiyeh headscarves with their fleeces. “So grateful to be in a country I’ve never experienced before,” wrote Olivia Culpo. “I’ve changed my name to Habib Aoki,” wrote DJ Steve Aoki (also unable to resist the kaffiyeh).