The Secret Weapon of Arab Regimes — Influencers and Vloggers - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Eating street food in Aleppo or dancing in public as a woman in Riyadh isn’t as easy as influencers want you to believe.

By Mat Nashed

  • Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Syria are hiring popular influencers to whitewash repeated human rights abuses.
  • Even as Saudi Arabia jails dissidents and Syria bombs rebels, these influencers are highlighting tourism and so-called progress.

During a three-day rave in Saudi Arabia, social media influencers and celebrities uploaded dozens of photos to Instagram and Twitter. Among those posting were model Alessandra Ambrosio and actors Armie Hammer, Ryan Phillippe and Ed Westwick. They were all promoting the MDL Beast music festival, held in Riyadh last December.

The Saudi government sponsored the guests to showcase “the cultural revolution” it claims is unfolding in the still-ultra-conservative country. The promotional photos sparked outrage from rights groups who accused the celebrities of whitewashing Saudi Arabia’s record of brutal human rights abuses in exchange for a paycheck estimated to be in six figures. But the visitors in Riyadh were part of a pattern.

From Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates to war-torn Syria, repressive regimes across the Middle East are increasingly employing and welcoming social media influencers and vloggers as de facto ambassadors. They highlight historic sites, attractive men and women, and an active nightlife, while ignoring the darker side of life in these countries.

Since June 2019, the UAE has required every resident who profits financially from posting promotional content on social media accounts to obtain an annual $4,000 influencer license. The mechanism allows the country to regulate influencers, who make up to $5,000 per branded post. By July 2019, the country had 1,700 registered influencers.

Tourists participating in state-sponsored campaigns don’t need a license, although they are strongly encouraged to include the hashtag #MyDubai when posting photos or videos of their vacations. In return, the UAE awards those who post the most flattering content by flying in family or friends to join them. Dubai has not disclosed how much it spends on the campaign.

These vloggers are helping the [Syrian] regime’s image.

Thomas Pierret, senior researcher, French National Centre for Scientific Research

Syria, meanwhile, claims that it received 1.5 million foreign tourists last year, despite the war. And while most experts say that number is exaggerated, they have noticed an uptick in the number of travel vloggers visiting Syria in recent months. Most only visit the capital, Damascus, where fighting has long since ceased, but almost all of them claim that Syria is more liberal and safer than depicted by mainstream media. It’s unclear how Syria compensates these vloggers, but motive and outcome are easier to gauge, say analysts, at a time when access to the country is restricted for those critical of its regime.

“These vloggers are helping the regime’s image,” says Thomas Pierret, a Syria expert and senior researcher for the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

In August 2019, Polish vlogger Eva zu Beck visited Syria and posted videos of her time in Damascus and Aleppo on YouTube and Facebook. The videos show her eating street food, driving through the city and taking selfies with vendors. Absent from her narrative is the war and the atrocities committed by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Zu Beck’s Damascus video has been viewed more than 700,000 times on YouTube. The video continued to pick up traction in March of this year, while Russian and Syrian government forces pounded the rebel-held stronghold of Idlib, which resulted in the displacement of nearly 1 million civilians.

The vloggers insist their videos aren’t political. Zu Beck notes on her Facebook video from Aleppo that it’s not a “commentary on the political climate there.” But analysts dispute those claims.

A day after the Riyadh rave,  Saudi Arabia sentenced five men to death for the assassination of Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi. Human rights groups believe that low-level agents took the fall to shield Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (widely known as MBS) from blame. “Not every influencer has to condemn Saudi Arabia,” says Sarah Leah Whitson from the Quincy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C. “But anyone operating as a promoter or advertiser for the state has a responsibility to ensure that their advertisement is honest and accurate.”

These vloggers and influencers help brutally repressive regimes reshape their narrative to profit from tourism and investment while circumventing pressure to make fundamental human rights reforms, warn experts and activists. Few people hear about the UAE’s jailed human rights defenders or its sophisticated cybersurveillance program built with the help of former National Security Agency spies. The UAE attracts millions of tourists each year. “It has a terrible human rights record and almost nobody knows about it,” says Adam Coogle, a deputy director at Human Rights Watch.

“The narrative you are fed in the UAE is that this is the best country in the world thanks to its wise leaders,” says Iyad el-Baghdadi, a Palestinian human rights activist and a former resident of the UAE.

Under MBS, Riyadh is also trying to reshape its image. He has hosted co-ed parties, opened movie theaters and allowed women to drive, as part of a broader campaign to lure investors and diversify the economy. Since last year, Riyadh has worked with several public relations firms, including Influencer and Consulum, to bring influencers on all-paid promotional trips to the kingdom’s tourist destinations, from desert dunes to the Red Sea coast. (Neither Influencer nor Consulum responded to OZY’s request for a comment.) All the while, Saudi Arabia has jailed and tortured activists, targeted journalists and seized assets from MBS’ perceived rivals.  

Then there is Syria, where people are unable to tell visitors about the repression they face without risking reprisal. “We don’t have a zoo in Syria for vloggers to enjoy themselves. We have people dying and we have thousands missing,” says Ali Cheikh Haidar, a Syrian refugee and activist living in France.

Unlike the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Syria isn’t going to benefit from much tourism while it’s still at war, says Pierret. But the countries’ rulers share a strategy when it comes to image building. And for influencers and vloggers who are willing to play ball, it’s an opportunity to fatten their pockets. 

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