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The smiling assassin: Two years after murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia spends billions to conceal pervasive human rights violations

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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 on October 2, the same day the organization 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 MinajEmily RatajkowskiMartha HuntJohn 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.”

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