The Canada director at Human Rights Watch says the upcoming Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, featuring a performance by Canadian pop sensation Justin Bieber, is an attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to “whitewash his human rights record.”
“I think what’s clear is that Justin Bieber and other celebrities are being used by Saudi Arabia to deflect from the country’s image as a pervasive human rights violator,” Farida Deif told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.
Bieber and other celebrities, including rapper A$AP Rocky and singer Jason Derulo, are scheduled to perform at the debuting Formula 1 event on Dec. 5.
But they’re facing growing calls to cancel their concerts due to Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses. These alleged abuses include torture, unlawful detentions and unfair trials of critics.
One call comes from Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who in 2018 was murdered by agents with alleged connections to Salman’s family.
The Current requested a comment from Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun, but has not received a response.
Saudi Vision 2030
The Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is far from the first major international event to be held in Saudi Arabia.
The Spanish Super Cup, a soccer tournament composed entirely of Spanish teams, was held in Saudi Arabia twice in the last three years; and the Saudi International golf tournament has been going on since 2019.
Artists like Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey and 50 Cent have also held shows in the Middle Eastern country, despite criticism from some fans.
Aya Batrawy, an Arabian Peninsula reporter with the Associated Press, said these events are part of the crown prince’s efforts to modernize Saudi Arabia.
“Hopefully with that, [he’ll] attract investors, attract tourism dollars and create jobs, most importantly, for the millions of young Saudis in a country he is set to inherit,” she said.
A celebration of human achievement in sports [could] distract from serious human rights abuses that are happening in your country.-Farida Deif
Part of the plan, officially known as Saudi Vision 2030, involves glitzing up the nation’s reputation with high-profile events and personalities from around the world.
“Sports is part of that,” Deif said. “A celebration of human achievement in sports [could] distract from serious human rights abuses that are happening in your country.”
Formula One Group CEO Stefano Domenical told the BBC that this new event — and a similar one in Qatar — can help drive progress on human rights in the region.
But Deif said there are little to no examples of these international events having that effect.
“In fact, what happens is it allows the government to continue without accountability,” she said. “It undermines any efforts to hold Saudi officials accountable … because you have this sort of veneer and the spotlight on something very different, which is a big sporting event.”
Do celebrities have a responsibility to boycott?
This is why Deif believes a boycott from celebrities and potential investors like Bieber is necessary.
She said it would send a message to Saudi Arabia to commit to real reforms more effectively than “these types of spectacles that really don’t reform anything at all.”
Batrawy doesn’t believe it’s the musician’s responsibility to be boycotting certain events and countries due to political reasons.
“I think in some ways to put that kind of mantle on the shoulders of celebrities — that they’re supposed to carry the light of justice or take a political stand — might be a bit much for a lot of celebrities to wade into,” she said.
She also noted that musicians tend to make more money from concerts and tours rather than album sales, so cancelling a concert could have a significant financial impact on the artist.
Batrawy also questioned what positive effect these boycotts could have on Saudi Arabians, many of whom she believes “aren’t that politicized to begin with.”
“I think for young Saudis, a lot of them say, like, ‘Why should the whole country and all of us be punished for political decisions, or decisions that might be targeted towards one person in our government?'”
But Deif is confident that a cultural boycott by Bieber and other celebrities could have a substantial impact, both in Saudi Arabia and abroad.
“I think once there’s a larger wave of celebrities that are declining these invitations to kind of be used by the Saudi authorities in this way, I think it will send a powerful message, both to the outside world as well as to Saudi authorities,” she said.
WATCH: Calls for boycott grow ahead of 2022 Winter Olympics in China
Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country facing calls for a cultural boycott.
In November, protesters in South Africa called upon their representative to boycott the Miss Universe pageant in Israel. The government condemned “the atrocities committed by Israel against Palestinians” in a statement, adding that it “cannot in good conscience associate itself with such.”
Deif said boycotts shouldn’t be called for all types of events and gatherings, but rather ones “where there [are] pervasive human rights abuses” taking place, such as evacuating communities to make room for new stadiums.
“Where it’s clear that the event itself to be carried out involves human rights abuses … governments should really focus on and see whether or not it makes sense to participate and at what level,” she said.
Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Idella Sturino.