Supermodels and social media mavens, their makeup artists and hair stylists in tow, posed at a concert in leather pants, chunky sweaters and trendy black combat boots.
What was unusual about these Instagram posts was that they were all deliberately tagged in Riyadh
The bevy of Instagram stars, former Victoria’s Secret models, including Alessandra Ambrosio, and Hollywood actors like Ryan Phillipe, Ed Westwick and Wilmer Valderrama were invited to Saudi Arabia over the weekend to promote the kingdom’s most eye-popping effort yet at showcasing the dramatic changes taking hold in this country, where more than half of its 20 million citizens are under 25 years old.
The efforts are aimed at boosting the economy while polishing Saudi Arabia’s image abroad and appealing to the young.
It’s a staggering pivot from just three years ago, when religious police would storm restaurants playing music and harass women in malls for showing their face or wearing red nail polish.
Now the kingdom has movie theatres and concerts. Women are allowed to drive and travel without male permission, and they can sit with men, unsegregated at restaurants.
The kingdom began issuing tourist visas this year. Female visitors are not required to wear the conservative black-flowing robe known as the abaya and headscarves in public.
At Riyadh airport, a booth welcomes tourists with pamphlets on etiquette in Saudi Arabia, titled: “Our Code of Conduct”.
“Both men and women are asked to dress modestly in public, avoiding tight-fitting clothing,” it explains. “Women should cover their shoulders and knees in public.”
Apparently, not all the VIP guests flown to Saudi Arabia on private jets got the memo – some opted for stomach-baring tops under open coats.
The blast of glossy social media posts helped draw attention to the visit’s purpose – to promote MDL Beast, a three-day musical extravaganza in Riyadh that drew more than 130,000 visitors on its first day alone, according to the General Entertainment Authority.
Ticket prices started at just 75 riyals ($20), but the organisers were eager to ensure a big turnout so tickets were also handed out for free to some government employees.
More than 70 world-renowned DJs were invited to perform across five stages to the backdrop of surrealist performances – including one with a woman in a skintight sky blue leotard writhing from a hot air balloon over a crowd of young Saudi men.
Men and women cut loose and danced at the unprecedented rave-like event. Thousands waited for hours to get in.