Nicki Minaj headlining music festival in conservative Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has invited rapper Nicki Minaj to perform this month, an unusual move for the famously conservative kingdom.

Minaj is scheduled to headline the Jeddah World Fest, a music and performance festival, on July 18. DJ Steve Aoki and singer Liam Payne have also been announced, and the kingdom is offering quick online visas for international visitors.

Minaj is known for more than just her rap skills, with explicit lyrics and risque performances sometimes taking center stage. So why did she get an invite to Saudi Arabia, where public spaces are mostly segregated by gender and women’s rights are still restricted?

Kingdom has loosened some of its restrictions

The Saudi government has made efforts to relax some of its restrictions. Last year, a 35-year ban on movie theaters was lifted, and women were finally given the right to drive. This year, Mariah Carey held her own concert in Saudi Arabia, despite backlash from women’s rights activists.

It’s all part of an economic overhaul under Vision 2030, an effort to reduce the kingdom’s reliance on oil. The kingdom is attempting to create economic activity at home and encourage citizens to spend their money within its borders. But there are few entertainment attractions due to its ultraconservatism — hence, the Jeddah World Fest.

In 2017, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promised to destroy “extremist ideologies” and create a more moderate kingdom in an effort to “coexist with the world.”

The festival — and Minaj’s headliner role — aligns itself with this aim. But the crown prince and the kingdom have also been under heavy criticism concerning the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year and could be looking to change international perceptions as well.