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'Queen' in the kingdom: Nicki Minaj set to perform in Saudi Arabia

Rights advocates call on Minaj to speak out for Saudi women's rights
Codepink activist accuses Minaj of "providing cover for the ongoing imprisonment of women's rights activists" (AFP)

In one of her hit songs, Nicki Minaj concludes a verse by comparing her lyrics to a "wrap like the things on the head of a Saudi". 

Now, critics are having a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that the famous rapper - whose profanity-laden songs often focus on sex and drugs - will be performing in the ultraconservative kingdom. 

Jeddah Season Festival confirmed on Tuesday that Minaj will be headlining an entertainment event in the Red Sea Saudi city later this month - less than 90km from Mecca, home to the holiest site in Islam.

The news was met with bewilderment and condemnation from observers, who pointed to Saudi Arabia's atrocious human-rights record, including gender segregation and the imprisonment of prominent women's rights advocates.

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof called on the pop star to bring up the plight of women like Loujaine al-Halthoul, a detained feminist advocate who has been tortured and sexually harassed by her captors in the Gulf kingdom.

Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson echoed Kristof's comment, adding that Minaj should not help "whitewash Saudi war crimes in Yemen".

Others questioned whether the festival's organisers are aware of the singer's sexually explicit lyrics and provocative stage appearances. 

The kingdom has been trying to ease conservative social norms and bring more entertainment to its increasingly youthful population. 

Last year, Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on movie theatres. And in 2017,  Jeddah hosted the kingdom's first comic-con.

Major Western pop stars, including US diva Mariah Carey, have recently performed in Saudi Arabia. 

But the so-called "modernisation" campaign led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which also granted women the right to drive, has not improved the state of human rights in the country, according to advocacy groups.

In fact, bin Salman has embarked on a massive crackdown on dissent, culminating in the killing and dismembering of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October and a mass execution of 37 prisoners in April, most of whom were Shia activists.

The kingdom has also arrested several feminist advocates who campaigned for the right to drive, including Halthoul.

Minaj, who refers to herself as "the Queen", says she is an advocate for women.

'What she's doing is providing cover for the ongoing imprisonment of women's rights activists like  Loujaine al-Halthoul' 

- Ariel Gold, Codepink

Ariel Gold, national co-director of Codepink, an anti-war feminist group that has led a campaign calling for a boycott of Saudi Arabia, said the Gulf kingdom is using celebrities like Minaj to whitewash its crimes against women. 

Proponents of performing in Saudi Arabia have said that mixed-gender concerts are a step towards equality. 

But Gold told Middle East Eye that the Minaj concert will not help Saudi women.

"What she's doing is providing cover for the ongoing imprisonment of women's rights activists like Loujaine al-Halthoul," said Gold.

"I was so disappointed to see that she's going to be headlining this festival. She talks about female empowerment, about women's empowerment, yet she is going to a country that continues to imprison and torture women."

Gold added that it does not matter how Minaj will be dressed on the stage as long as Saudi women themselves remain restricted in what they can and cannot wear. 

Indeed, in a viral video, a Twitter user who says she is from Saudi Arabia wondered why she must wear the traditional abaya dress to go to a concert where Minaj may shake her behind and recite "indecent lyrics".

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.