Saudi Arabia has chosen to use Instagram influencers as a way to help boost its global image.

They took this route instead of stopping the execution of gays and journalists and embracing basic human rights.

The murder of newspaper columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year was the last straw for the world. Saudi Arabia’s continues to deny involvement in his killing and dismemberment. PR firms that prop up the Islamic kingdom in DC received a “scarlet letter.” Executives and investigators cut ties and canceled visits to Saudi Arabia.

So why not use social media influencers?

Los Angeles-based travel blogger Aggie Lal took this opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia. From Bloomberg:

Her 10-day tour was arranged by Gateway KSA, a program that started offering tours two years ago and is funded by Saudi corporate sponsorship. It’s hosted by Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief who later had a short stint as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“What we present to these young people is that there’s another side to the story about Saudi Arabia than what they simply read in the press,” Prince Turki says of the guests of Gateway KSA. “We have much to do in the kingdom to affect the opinion of others.”

The program’s effort “shows that the Saudis are looking far beyond just lobbying and public-relations firms to garner sway in the West,” says Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, which tracks lobbying at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. After the kingdom’s efforts to rebrand were derailed by Khashoggi’s murder, “it just makes perfect sense for them to pursue alternative avenues of influence like this,” he says.

 

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All women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear an abaya. As you arrive at the airport, you can see a sea of women wearing all black, usually with their hair and faces covered with a hijab while men wear long white thobes. 🧕🏼 ::::: Saudi Arabia is a country with some of the most limited human rights for women in the world. Only recently women have been allowed to drive & vote but they are still required to have a male guardian (father, husband or brother) who gets to decide whether or not their woman can travel, get married/ divorced or sign a contract. :::::: I can’t help but to think about the power of Yin & Yang. Two halves that together complete wholeness. There is no Yang (white / masculine) without Yin (black / feminine). :::: Feminine energy (black) is intuition, creativity, nurturing, experiencing, being. It’s honesty, integrity, playfulness, loving kindness and vulnerability. Male energy (white) is logical, competitive, controlling and action oriented. The synchronicity of the clothing color is hard to ignore. :::: Both energies oppose each other but can’t exist without each other. There is no Yin without Yang. Neither is superior. Each one is equally powerful in its own way. :::: Question for you: if you wanted to help women in Saudi have better human rights would you boycott visiting the country OR would you encourage all women around the world to travel there to connect, get to meet and make friends with and listen to the needs of Saudi women so we can help each other out? ::::: Photo by the legend @moliverallen for @gatewaysksa #formation #saudi #saudiarabia #abaya #hijab

A post shared by TRAVEL IN HER SHOES (@aggie) on

Some of Lal’s 800,000 followers lashed out at her “propaganda,” but others decided to follow in her footsteps to Saudi Arabia:

She posted stories of her trip, including how she stumbled across rules on gender segregation by accidentally entering the male side of a Starbucks. Lal recalled broaching the topic of Khashoggi’s murder with Saudis whom she met. They told her they weren’t proud of what their government did, she says.

“I think everyone from any country in the world can relate to that statement,” says Lal, speaking by phone last month while on a tour in Europe. “It’s obviously not a very popular opinion. People want me to talk badly about Saudi,” she says. “We live in America, and it’s more convenient to demonize other countries so you feel like there’s nothing to learn from.”

Dutch-Australian influencer Nelleke Van Zandvoort Quispel developed the idea of Gateway KSA after she visited Saudi Arabia. The visit shed light on “another side of the country.” She met Prince Turki at a Georgetown event and proposed the idea to him.

Harvard students became the first to use the delegation in 2018. Since then over “200 people have visited through the program,” mainly influencers and university students:

Their costs are covered, though they don’t receive any other fees.

Gateway KSA doesn’t have a direct relationship with the government, though sponsors include state-controlled Saudi Telecom, Saudi Basic Industries, and Saudi Arabian Airlines. “It’s not that I’m particularly pro-Saudi or have a political agenda,” Quispel says. “I think the way in which we show the country is in a very subtle and fair way.”

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has tried to open the kingdom to the rest of the world by loosening “social restrictions.” He celebrated “a concert by French DJ David Guetta at a motor racing festival also attended by influencers.”

Saudi Arabia will also “issue tourist visas for the first time later this month.”

Reactions

Sane people had perfect reactions to this news. Some of us cannot brush aside the brutality that remains in the regime despite the changes made by Prince Mohammed.

 
 
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