'Vogue Arabia' Sparks Online Backlash Following Cover of Saudi Princess Driving Car

Vogue Arabia HRH Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud Cover - Publicity - P 2018
Courtesy of Boo George

The cover girl, Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud, is the daughter of a late king who enforced the ban on women receiving driver's licenses.

Vogue Arabia is angering Internet users once more with a provocative cover. Months after issues prominently featuring Gigi Hadid and Rihanna sparked accusations of "blackface" and cultural appropriation, social-media users lambasted the 1-year-old magazine on Wednesday for a cover featuring a photo of Saudi Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud sitting behind the wheel of a red convertible.

The image celebrates the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's upcoming removal of a ban prohibiting women from obtaining driver's licenses. The move is part of an overall campaign of modernization as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as MBS, prepares to take the throne: In April, the country also lifted its ban on cinemas, and Black Panther became the first film to screen there in 35 years.

"This month, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting women in the driving seat — and so are we," the magazine explained in its announcement of the cover. The issue "celebrates the women of the Kingdom and their wide-reaching achievements," the magazine added.

However, the ban, which will be lifted June 24, is is still being enforced in the country, and in late May at least six prominent women's rights activists, several of whom had been staunchly opposed to the driving ban, were detained. Amnesty International has also reported a "public smear campaign" had been initiated in the country, with the intention to portray the activists as "traitors." Three activists have since been released.

Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud is the daughter of the late King Faisal, who ruled the country from 1964 to 1975, when he was assassinated by his nephew, and who, like every king, enforced the ban. She tells Vogue Arabia in the story, "In our country, there are some conservatives who fear change. For many, it’s all they have known. Personally, I support these changes with great enthusiasm.”

On Wednesday, Twitter users mocked the cover as a tone-deaf celebration of a princess whose family had been in part responsible for the ban. "Oh Conde Nast, did you not learn from Asma Assad as the 'desert rose'?" journalist Azadeh Moaveni asked, referring to a controversial 2012 Vogue story on the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"@VogueArabia is telling the wrong story," one activist wrote, attaching a photo split showing the Vogue cover on one side and a parallel image in which Princess Hayfa's head was replaced with the face of a female activist in the country on the other. (Several others on Twitter also doctored photos to do the same.)

"You've got to be kidding me. A princess graces the cover of next month's Vogue Arabia while @azizayousef @Saudiwoman @LoujainHathloul and other activist women who have worked tirelessly to lift driving ban languish in jail," a Middle East reporter for The Telegraph added.

Saudi women's rights activist Manal al-Sharif, who helped start the campaign advocating that women be allowed to drive in the country, was also profiled in the issue. She wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, "@VogueArabia June issue is dedicated to Saudi Women.. I haven't got my issue yet, but so happy that my country women are being celebrated yet let's not forget the true heroes @azizayousef @Saudiwoman @LoujainHathloul," tagging the three women still detainied in the country. She later tweeted at the magazine, asking why it had Photoshopped out her scars.

This is just the latest controversy to have dogged the magazine, which weathered backlash when it put Gigi Hadid on the cover of its inaugural issue with her skin apparently darkened. Rihanna later appeared in stereotypically Egyptian garments in the November 2017 issue in an homage to Queen Nerfititi, leading online commentators to protest "cultural appropriation."

Stateside, American Vogue received withering press and online comments in May when it released a story and accompanying editor's letter about Harvey Weinstein's wife and Marchesa co-founder Georgina Chapman. Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour wrote that Chapman “had no idea about her husband’s behavior,” and added, “blaming her for any of it, as too many have in our gladiatorial digital age, is wrong.”

THR has reached out to Vogue Arabia for comment.