Was Mariah Carey Right to Perform in Saudi Arabia?

Mariah Carey took the stage for her first concert in Saudi Arabia on Thursday, January 31st. This performance, a part of the first Saudi International golf tournament, made her the first western, high profile, and female artist to perform in the country. While some were ecstatic about this watershed moment, others were disappointed that Carey ignored calls from women's rights activists to boycott the show.

After all, many have criticized the Saudi Arabian government for using entertainment to distract the public from ongoing human rights violations, which include detaining activists under torturous conditions. The Women for Rights in Saudi Arabia (WARSA) has even petitioned for Carey to boycott the country entirely. Co-founder Omaima al-Najjar explained that the petition’s focus was placed on Carey because “she has the power to stand for women…as an artist and as a female.”

Other campaigners called for Carey to make her performance dependent on the release of detained activists. They were ultimately disappointed as the concert took place on Thursday without the stipulations they had hoped for.

It's no surprise that supporters of Carey’s concert have countered the backlash, calling the event an indication of social progress. This progress was the forefront of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s liberalization agenda (the controversy surrounding his governance makes for another article on its own) and is why fans were so exhilarated by reduced entertainment restrictions to begin with.

A similar sentiment was echoed by Mariah Carey’s press team, who further explained 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… she looks forward to bringing inspiration and encouragement to all audiences.”

Those who agree with Carey’s decision also criticize its backlash for being misogynistic, as male artists (for ex - Jay Z, DJ Khaled, Chris Rock, etc.) who expect to tour in Saudi Arabia receive much less disapproval for it.

Mariah Carey fans have been quick to point out that Carey is an artist and not a politician. They emphasize that her job is to spread music, not meddle with the political landscapes of countries she spreads it to.

Still, the debate over whether entertainers should be expected to boycott concerts for political reasons is rooted in a more complicated discussion: Should artists be held accountable for not only the quality of their art but the impact their actions have on public discourse? This question touches ongoing disagreement over whether art should be separated from the things that influence it, such as its creator or the context of its presentation.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the idea that Carey’s performance was a giant step for global equality is somewhat naive. At the end of the day, the success of an expensive concert is a poor example of inclusiveness that distracts us from human rights issues genuinely indicative of social progress.

However, putting the pressure to boycott solely on Carey is also problematic because it implies that gender issues are primarily women’s issues when they are also, if not more so, men’s issues as well. After all, making statements about gender not only a responsibility but one exclusive to female public figures is just another way we allow men to stay silent in the conversations surrounding it. This dynamic is ineffective, considering that gender inequality is in itself a problem men have historically created and reinforced.

A week has passed since Mariah Carey appeared in front of adoring fans at the Saudi International golf tournament, but debates over the ethics of such performances are unlikely to fade. Despite the show’s controversy, Saudi Arabia has expressed plans to host similar events in the future. Officials hope to “usher in a Year of Entertainment in 2019”, which means that as far as controversy is concerned, this is only the beginning.