Nicki Minaj pulls out of Saudi Arabia performance following backlash from human rights activists

PHOTO: Nicki Minaj arrives for the 2019 Met Gala celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6, 2019, in New York City.PlayKarwai Tang/Getty Images
WATCH News headlines today: Sept. 20, 2019

Hip-hop star Nicki Minaj said that she is no longer headlining a concert in Saudi Arabia this month after her decision to perform in the staunchly conservative nation generated backlash from human rights groups.

The Grammy-nominated rapper, who was set to perform at the drug-free, alcohol-free Jeddah World Fest on July 18, also received messages from fans asking her to cancel her appearance. She said in a statement on Tuesday that she decided to pull out of the show “after careful reflection," the Associated Press reported.

“While I want nothing more than to bring my show to fans in Saudi Arabia, after better educating myself on the issues, I believe it is important for me to make clear my support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression,” the rapper said.

Representatives for Minaj did not immediately return ABC News' request for comment.

PHOTO: Nicki Minaj arrives for the 2019 Met Gala celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6, 2019, in New York City. Karwai Tang/Getty Images
Nicki Minaj arrives for the 2019 Met Gala celebrating Camp: Notes on Fashion at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 6, 2019, in New York City.

The CEO of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, which criticized Minaj’s initial plan to perform in a letter, applauded her decision to pull out of the show on Tuesday and urged others to follow suit.

“This is what leadership looks like! @HRF is grateful to ⁦@NICKIMINAJ⁩ for her inspiring and thoughtful decision to reject the #Saudi regime’s attempt at using her for a public relations stunt. We hope ⁦@LiamPayne⁩ follows Minaj’s lead,” Thor Halvorssen tweeted. He called on Payne, a former member One Direction, to cancel his appearance as well. American DJ Steve Aoki is also among the artists expected to perform.

A variety of Hollywood stars and entertainers have performed in the kingdom in recent months, including Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Enrique Iglesias, the Black Eyed Peas, Sean Paul, David Guetta and Ne-Yo.

The Human Rights Foundation has criticized celebrities who performed in the nation, and their official Twitter account praised Minaj. "Millions of people around the world 🌍 are inspired by your devotion to human rights and human dignity. We at @HRF salute you & are grateful for your leadership #freeloujain."

The popular hashtag "free Loujain" is a call for Saudi Arabia to release women's rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, who was detained and arrested for speaking out against the Saudi regime and for leading the movement to end the country's driving ban for women.

PHOTO: Nicki Minaj performs on stage during the MTV EMAs 2018 at Bilbao Exhibition Centre, Nov. 4, 2018, in Bilbao, Spain. Ian Gavan/Getty Images, FILE
Nicki Minaj performs on stage during the MTV EMAs 2018 at Bilbao Exhibition Centre, Nov. 4, 2018, in Bilbao, Spain.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman lifted the driving ban in 2018 in an effort to modernize and diversify the economy, which is currently heavily reliant on oil, but Al-Hathloul and others remain in prison.

While some gender segregation laws have loosened over the past few years, the practice is still is largely enforced in Saudi Arabia’s public sphere and men still maintain control over major aspects of women’s lives.

Inviting celebrities and entertainers to perform in the country has been part of the kingdom’s efforts to reform its public image.

Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority (GEA), unveiled a plan in January to transform the nation’s entertainment industry as part of “Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 platform,” that he said aims to “transform the Kingdom into one of the top ten international entertainment destinations.”

The plan was unveiled after months of backlash and boycotts from public figures following the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last October. Many have wondered about the Crown Prince’s alleged role in the killing. The prince has denied those allegations, and called the murder a "heinous crime that cannot be justified."

Khashoggi, who was critical of the Saudi government, welcomed the Crown Prince’s decision to lift the driving ban on women, but wrote in a Washington Post column at the time that the Saudi leader “needs to do much more,” urging him to release women who were imprisoned for their activism.