Several Hollywood stars and social media influencers are receiving backlash for traveling to Saudi Arabia despite controversy surrounding the country’s human rights record.
The controversial Middle Eastern country was enlisting celebrities and influencers to document their all-expenses-paid trips as part of its efforts to improve tourism and repair its reputation.
However, given the country’s human rights controversies — including the killing of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year — many celebrities who have documented their trips to Riyadh, the country’s capital, are receiving intense backlash on social media.
Saudi authorities in 2018 intensified a coordinated crackdown on dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics.
The religious government also continued to use counterterrorism regulations to suppress political expression and dissent.
Armie Hammer was among the famous faces who traveled to Riyadh over the weekend for the MDL Beast Festival and praised the event on Instagram.
“What I just witnessed was truly special,” wrote Hammer, 33. “I saw Saudi men and women ecstatic about an event that they never thought they would ever see in their lifetimes… it felt like a cultural shift. A change. Like Woodstock in the 1960’s. Social evolution is slow and takes time but what I was able to be a part of felt like one giant seed of growth. The people there throwing themselves into the experience will lead a cultural revolution that we all need to get behind and support. #mdlbeast.”
The actor received criticism after his posts, including from journalist Yashar Ali.
“Hope it was worth it @armiehammer. Did you find Jamal Khashoggi’s body while you were there?” Ali wrote.
On Monday, just days after the Instagram posts started, a court in Saudi Arabia announced it had sentenced 5 people to death for the killing of Khashoggi, who was a critic of the royal family.
He was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey at 59.
Diet Prada, an Instagram account sharing criticisms of the trip, shared a statement from model Emily Ratajkowski, who declined the offer to attend the festival.
“It is very important to me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community, freedom of expression, and the right to a free press. I hope coming forward on this brings more attention to the injustices happening there,” Ratajkowski, 28, said.
Ryan Phillippe has also been hit with criticism for traveling to the country and heavily documenting it on social media. He has even fought back against his critics in the Instagram comments.
On one post, a follower wrote, “A life is value nothing there. Just if you have money. Human rights is not exist in this country.”
In response, Phillippe, 45, wrote, “Yes it does. read something recent. better yet read about other countries present or past as they changed and evolved. grow up. get off the internet.”
He responded to another follower, “F— off and grow up,” and said, “shut up racist loser,” when criticized on another Instagram post.
“Your comments section meltdown is just proving everyone’s point,” another follower said, to which Phillippe responded, “It’s funny to me tool. you think i really care. i’m bored and s—- on uninformed holier than thous.”
With few exceptions Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis, including in public education, the justice system, religious freedom, and employment.
Government-affiliated religious authorities continued to disparage Shia and Sufi interpretations, versions, and understandings of Islam in public statements and documents.
Saudi Arabia has no written laws concerning sexual orientation or gender identity, but judges use principles of uncodified Islamic law to sanction people suspected of committing sexual relations outside marriage, including adultery, extramarital, and homosexual sex.
Sofia Richie also documented many photos on social media from her stay at The Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
She shared a mirror selfie, which also featured influencer Alessandra Ambrosio, and captioned the shot, “Saudi girls” which garnered backlash, given the country’s harsh treatment of women.
Richie’s boyfriend, Scott Disick, also traveled to Riyadh and shared photos on Instagram.
Gossip Girl alum Ed Westwick also attended MDL Beast Festival. In his post, Westwick, 32, mentioned UNICEF, which was further criticized by Ali.
“Love how @EdWestwick tries to justify his Saudi government sponsored trip by mentioning UNICEF in his Instagram caption,” Ali wrote on Twitter.
Reps for Richie and Westwick did not respond to PEOPLE’s requests for comment.
Other celebrities who attended MDL Beast and shared photos included Steve Aoki and David Guetta, both of whom played at the concert, as well as Olivia Culpo, Winnie Harlow and model Joan Smalls.