Justin Bieber Performs to Packed Crowd in Saudi Arabia Despite Activists' Calls to Cancel

Pop superstar Justin Bieber performed in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Sunday despite calls from human rights activists to cancel the show.

Groups such as the Human Rights Watch have asked performers to boycott Saudi Arabia due to the kingdom's retaliation against those who oppose it. According to the Associated Press, they said events like the Bieber concert are ways to divert attention from human rights violations.

One of the ways Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has worked to "modernize" Saudi society is by allowing concerts like this to take place. Bieber took the stage to mark the end of Saudi Arabia's first Formula One Grand Prix.

One of the concert's loudest opponents was Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of late journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post columnist was killed in late 2018 by Saudi agents under bin Salman's orders after he criticized the prince's crackdowns on activists and other policy decisions.

Cengiz wrote an open letter to Bieber in the Washington Post, saying canceling his performance would "send a powerful message to the world that your name and talent will not be used to restore the reputation of a regime that kills its critics."

The pop star has not yet made any comment on these public statements.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Justin Bieber, Saudi Arabia, Grand Prix
Though human rights groups called for Canadian pop star Justin Bieber to boycott Saudi Arabia for their human rights violations, Bieber performed anyway. Above, Bieber performs at a concert marking the end of Formula One, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, December 5, 2021. Amr Nabil/AP Photo

Bieber's model wife, Hailey Baldwin Bieber, posted a supportive video on Instagram of him on stage, with the words: "Go Baby." Other videos on social media showed Bieber on stage solo, wearing a coordinated red outfit. Pop and R&B singer Jason Derulo performed before Bieber with backup female dancers in sweatpants and baggy tops.

Only a few years ago, this would have been an unthinkable scene in Saudi Arabia, where ultraconservative norms prevailed. Concerts were banned and unmarried men and women were segregated in public spaces. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is behind the sweeping changes as he works to modernize society, attract foreign investment and create jobs for youth.

Like other stars, such as Mariah Carey in 2019, Bieber performed despite criticism to excited fans. It's unclear how much celebrities have been paid for their appearances in the kingdom. Saudi youth are the main attendees of these concerts, enjoying the country's newfound social changes.

Prince Mohammed attended the F1 race and social media showed him taking selfies with young Saudi men who lined up to meet the powerful heir to the throne. The F1 race marked the first time the kingdom hosts the premier sporting event, though it has hosted the lesser-known Formula-E race and other sporting events in past years in an effort to raise the country's profile as a tourist destination.

At the time of Khashoggi's killing in late 2018, the crown prince was being lauded for transforming life for many inside the country. Khashoggi, meanwhile, was writing columns for The Washington Post drawing attention to the prince's brash foreign policy moves and simultaneous crackdown on activists and perceived critics, including women's rights activists, writers, clerics and economists.

Khashoggi was killed during a visit to the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to obtain papers to marry his Turkish fiancée.

A U.S. intelligence assessment made public under President Joe Biden determined the crown prince approved the operation. Prince Mohammed has maintained he had no prior knowledge of the operation.

Bieber's concert in Saudi Arabia comes shortly before he opens a world tour next year. The tour is being promoted by Live Nation, the company that owns Ticketmaster. Saudi Arabia's state-owned sovereign wealth fund—steered by Prince Mohammed—is among the largest institutional holders in Live Nation, with a stake worth some $1.4 billion.

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman maintains he had no knowledge of the operation to kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi despite a U.S. intelligence assessment finding evidence to the contrary. Above, in this photo released by Saudi Royal Palace, Prince Mohammed waves to French President Emmanuel Macron, upon his arrival in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, December 4, 2021. Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP