Nicki Minaj has pulled out of performing in Saudi Arabia, less than 10 days before her show in Jeddah. After being pressured by human rights campaigners, she turned down Saudi money in solidarity with women’s rights. Festival organizers said the event proved that “Saudi Arabia accepts everyone”. But not everyone, it seems, accepts Saudi Arabia—even when they’re paid handsomely for their acceptance. And Minaj (who has three times as many Instagram followers as Saudi Arabia has citizens) is not alone.
I lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for three years as the Kingdom embraced its fast-growing media and entertainment industry. In a country with the highest social media usage in the world and a generation of YouTubers given creative freedom online, this was inspiring. While I was welcome to make films about and in Saudi, including in the Great Mosque in Mecca, in the end I returned to my native London. There were many reasons, one of which was the reality of being a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia—in spite of my British passport and impressive media contacts.
From 2015 to 2017, I witnessed up close the media and PR push happening in Saudi, which has recently culminated in stars like Mariah Carey and David Guetta performing there. Often, the endorsement of Saudi Arabia has been implicit in their mere presence in the country. Sometimes, it has been explicit, for example when David Guetta remixed a patriotic Saudi anthem in tribute to King Salman.
MBS is (like two-thirds of his country) a millennial, who instinctively understands the power of celebrity culture. On his US trip last year, he made a point of visiting Hollywood and dining with talent agents, even trying to invest in a Hollywood agency.
The outreach abroad has been mirrored by a relaxing of media restrictions at home. Long impenetrable to independent production companies, the Saudis have recently opened their doors to filmmakers like myself. There is real change happening there (albeit at a slow pace because of cultural factors), and I was privileged to have the access to document it.
This was invaluable to me, at both a creative and personal level. Islam and Muslims are painfully caricatured by many parts of the global media, and I wanted to change that. Inevitably, the religion of Islam and the state of Saudi Arabia are intimately connected in the minds of many outsiders—even if Muslims are often indifferent towards the Kingdom.
It wasn’t easy, but my passage into the emerging Saudi media class bore fruit. My team were given unprecedented and unrestricted access to the Great Mosque in Mecca. We were privileged to film footage that had never been seen before, and I endeavored in the resulting film, “One Day in the Haram” to show a humanistic side to the Mosque, shot from the perspective of the workers there. Some of those workers—especially the low-skilled ones—are not Saudis.
But looking at Saudi Arabia through their eyes showed me another side to life in the Kingdom. There is a culture of deeply undervaluing guest workers, many of whom are a long way from home and do not speak Arabic fluently.
These challenges facing workers from the “Global South” is an enduring feature of Saudi society. Power and prestige is often based on proximity to the King, meaning those at the fringes—especially foreigners from poorer countries—can be marginalised. This is a challenge facing all monarchies, from Britain to Thailand, but is particularly pronounced in Saudi Arabia.
As on issues like women’s rights and pr