Mariah Carey, one of the world’s most celebrated artists, is performing in Saudi Arabia on Thursday for the first time, but there’s a growing chorus of Saudi women calling on her to cancel the concert to show support for detained women’s rights activists.
Carey is the highest-profile star to perform in the kingdom since it began loosening decades of restrictions on entertainment.
But activists say her concert is an attempt by the government to polish its image after the Oct. 2 killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Carey’s publicists told the Associated Press in a statement that when “presented with the offer to perform for an international and mixed gender audience in Saudi Arabia, Mariah accepted the opportunity as a positive step towards the dissolution of gender segregation.”
“As the first female international artist to perform in Saudi Arabia, Mariah recognizes the cultural significance of this event and will continue to support global efforts towards equality for all,” the statement said, adding that Carey looks forward to bringing inspiration and encouragement to all audiences.
Omaima Al-Najjar, a Saudi woman who fled the kingdom to seek political refuge abroad, said the concerts are a diversion from the Saudi-led war in Yemen against the neighboring country’s Houthi rebels, human rights abuses committed under the crown prince and repressive male guardianship laws that restrict women’s freedoms.
“The Saudi government is using entertainment to distract the people from human rights abuses because it can sense the anger among the public,” she said. Al-Najjar is a co-founder of Women for Rights in Saudi Arabia, or WARSA, which launched a petition calling on Carey to boycott the country.
Activists are tweeting at Carey directly, urging her to take notice of the prominent Saudi women’s rights activists imprisoned since May who had long campaigned for social changes and women’s empowerment. The women, who include activists in their 20s as well as mothers, grandmothers and retired professors, have been accused of vague national security violations in connection with their human rights work.
Alia al-Hathloul called on Carey to remember her sister, Loujain al-Hathloul, who she says has been abused and threatened with death while in detention because of her activism, which included defying the kingdom’s ban on women driving before it was lifted last year.
“Remember, thanks to my sister @LoujainHathloul, you r able to perform in Saudi Arabia. I wish she can attend your concert. But she’s locked behind bars because she tried to improve women’s condition. Don’ forget to thank her on stage,” she wrote to Carey on Twitter.