x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Rihanna’s Grand Mosque stunt got headlines, at a cost

Rihanna's provocative pose at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque got her headlines but cost her respect

Ten days ago, the pop diva Rihanna paid a flying visit to Abu Dhabi as part of her world tour.

There seems to have been very little international press coverage of the quality of her concert on Yas Island. Perhaps it’s been swamped by the coverage of her decision to pose for pictures in the vicinity of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and then to post them on the internet. To that, the response has been huge, both in the media and elsewhere.

Some have argued that her black, tight-fitting garment with a hood that was meant, one assumes, to resemble a hijab, was offensive; others have said that it wasn’t. One would, though, have to be incredibly naive not to believe that the decision to pose in this particular location, dressed like that, was intended at least to provoke comment.

Did she mean deliberately to offend? Perhaps not. Somewhat reluctantly, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt on that. I wonder, however, what kind of response there would have been if she had been photographed in similarly provocative poses at Westminster Abbey in London or outside St Peter’s in the Vatican City, where there is, I note, a formal dress code for visitors.

A stern London policeman or a Vatican Swiss Guard would, I suspect, have quickly moved her on. If she had been at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, she would probably have been assaulted by misogynist Orthodox Jews.

The mosque authorities’ response was remarkably restrained: their statement merely noted that “a prominent singer” had come in through an entrance that was not for normal visitors, had behaved in an inappropriate manner and had been asked politely to leave.

Good for them. If Rihanna had intended to provoke them into making a fuss, she failed to do so, dismally. In fact, a lot of the publicity in the foreign media has questioned both her motives and her dress sense, with one writer even ending a piece by noting, a little slyly, that Rihanna looks better in hot pants.

We’re accustomed here to visiting celebrities behaving in a way designed to attract international media attention, regardless of whether their behaviour could be considered offensive to local customs.

That applies to female singers whose attire – like the language in the songs they sing – is scarcely appropriate. It applies equally to other celebrities, such as English football players who cavort on hotel beaches with their wives and girlfriends to provide photographers with salacious snaps that are then sold to foreign media. One British daily newspaper’s highly popular website regularly carries such pictures.

Cavorting on a beach is one thing. Draping oneself across the marble outside the entrance to a site of religious worship is something else entirely. Rihanna was, in my view, at fault. She shouldn’t have posed outside the mosque in that outfit.

Perhaps the blame, though, doesn’t really lie with her. Neither she nor her travelling circus of assistants, wardrobe managers and public relations advisers can be expected to have a proper understanding of what is, or is not, considered decent here, even though they clearly recognised the opportunity to stage a photo-shoot that might attract a bit of attention. She likes, after all, to dress in a way that will attract controversy.

Where, though, were the representatives of the event management company that had booked her for the concert? Surely some of them accompanied her for almost every waking moment of her time here, at least outside of the hotel. Did they issue a cautious word of warning that a photo-shoot in such a location, wearing such an outfit, might prompt a bit of criticism?

If not, they certainly should have done so. Even if, like most divas, she can be a little difficult to handle, they should have put their foot down and told her to drop the idea.

Or were they themselves just completely unaware of the potential sensitivity, and just thought that the mosque would make a great location for some fancy pictures? (No, I don’t expect an answer to that question.)

It’s easy to criticise visitors generally for a failure to recognise local sensitivities about dress, language and behaviour. Perhaps there would be less of that if local residents, Emiratis and others, gently spelt out some of the guidelines to those whom they, broadly, welcome as visitors among us.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in UAE history and culture.