When social media influencers turned up at the Azimuth music festival in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert they were promised a festival of musical and gastronomic excess, all subsidised by an arm of the Saudi government.
What attendees did not know was that the pricey music festival was secretly organised by youth media company Vice, as part of the media company’s ongoing push to make money in the Middle Eastern state despite the country’s poor human rights record.
Just three years after Vice publicly announced that it was pausing all work in Saudi Arabia due to the fallout from the state-ordered murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi, insiders at Vice told the Guardian the company was once again aggressively pursuing business opportunities in Saudi Arabia.
“Vice employees have for years raised concerns over the company’s involvement with Saudi Arabia – and we’ve been fobbed off with empty statements and pathetic excuses,” said one Vice employee.
Although the Azimuth music festival received little publicity in the western media when it took place at the start of the Covid pandemic, it is believed to be have been highly lucrative for Vice. Staff at the company estimate the total budget was $20m (£15m).
The event promised to bring together the best of eastern culture (it took place among ancient carvings at the world heritage site of Al-’Ula on a historic trade route) with the best of western culture (it featured a performance from the dance duo Chainsmokers).
The lineup was topped by French electronic musician Jean-Michel Jarre who appeared alongside rapper Tinie Tempah. High-end chefs from restaurants such as New York’s Michelin-starred Contra and London’s Annabel’s were flown in to cook for guests. British contemporary artists Lauren Baker joined the conceptual studio Shuster + Moseley to provide special art displays.
Despite this, efforts were taken to keep Vice’s name off the event. Contractors who worked on the music festival – organised through Vice’s creative marketing agency Virtue – were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements, while Vice’s name did not appear on public marketing material.
Saudi Arabia is desperate to spend big money to rebrand itself in the eyes of western youth – and Vice, despite its counter-cultural roots, is now an ageing business that needs to improve its financial position fast. The company rode the new-media start-up wave of the early part of this century but has already burned through billions of dollars of investment – all while also dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and trying to deliver a financial return to investors.
As a result, the money on offer in the Middle East has been tempting and Vice last year opened a dedicated office in the Saudi capital Riyadh. It has also had a deal to make promotional films for the country in conjunction with the Saudi Research and Marketing Group, a business with close ties to the Saudi state which also has a partnership with the Independent and Evening Standard.
One employee claimed Vice executives were acutely aware of the potential reputational damage that could be caused if Vice’s western audience became aware of the extent to which it was working with the Saudi state, saying: “It is astounding that – despite ongoing opposition from staff – Vice is still happy to take money from a country that was literally responsible for the state-sanctioned murder of a journalist.”
Asked about concerns from staff about its return to doing business in Saudi Arabia, a spokesperson for Vice said: “Vice Arabia was set up over four years ago as part of our global expansion – alongside many other media and content businesses who have expanded into the region. Vice has always been about creativity and culture for youth in every corner of the world – and in the Saudi Region, two-thirds of the population are under the age of 35.
“We opened a commercial and creative office in Riyadh earlier this year, which was reported and shared publicly. Our editorial voice has and always will report with complete autonomy and independence.”