Why is Kim Kardashian going to Bahrain?

Kim Kardashian flew into Bahrain’s capital today to launch the country’s first Millions of Milkshakes shop — but “sources” close to the reality TV star told TMZ that her trip to Kuwait and Bahrain is about more than promoting frozen drinks.

According to the celebrity-stalking website, Kardashian wants to “use her celebrity to raise awareness about important issues in the area”, and while in Kuwait a few days ago she met with the US Ambassador to the country, Matthew Tueller.

Before heading out to the region, Kardashian tweeted that the purpose of her trip was to “set the record straight”:

According to TMZ, Kardashian will also be meeting with “local leaders”, but I have a feeling that won’t include human rights defenders from Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) despite an invitation made by its acting president Maryam Alkhawaja asking the starlet to meet with the organisation. The BCHR won an Index Freedom of Expression Award last year for its work documenting human rights violations, political repression and torture in the tiny gulf kingdom after peaceful protests calling for political reform began on 14 February 2011. As similar protests blew across the Arab world, thousands of people took to the streets calling for democratic change and pro-democracy protests continue today. Since then Bahrain’s government has engaged in a brutal crackdown, according to BCHR, at least 84 people have been killed since the start of unrest and despite promises of reform, little has changed.

Only yesterday,ahead of a court decision next week, Amnesty International demanded that “13 opposition activists and prisoners of conscience must be released immediately by the Bahrain authorities.” And Human Rights Watch say Bahrain’s human rights situation “remains critical in the wake of the brutal crackdown”.

But is this just another case of a celebrity cluelessly brushing shoulders with corrupt government officials? Kardashian’s trip has been organised by Paresh Shah and Sheeraz Hasan, the duo behind the US-based Millions of Milkshakes franchise. Shah and Hasan have partnered up for various celebrity-oriented endeavors, including celebrity news and gossip site Hollywood.tv. Shah is an attorney, and Hasan a London-born entrepreneur who moved to the United States and launched a career as a producer, presenter, and eventual businessman. After the duo’s first milkshake store opened in West Hollywood in 2008, Kardashian launched the second shop in Dubai  last year and they continue to expand in the region, with shops opening this week in Kuwait and Bahrain. The shop focuses on celebrity to draw in customers, boasting a long list of camera-heavy celebrity visits — from Baywatch actress Pamela Anderson to British X-factor alum Cher Lloyd.

Shah and Hasan appear to have an interesting relationship with Bahrain’s royal family. According to their official website, the two were given a “mandate to source unique investment opportunities outside of Bahrain and developing infrastructure within Bahrain” after meeting with the royal family  earlier this year. 

Hasan and Shah traveled to Bahrain only weeks before the controversial Bahrain Grand Prix in April, with Hasan tweeting a photograph of himself with Shah and a pair of Rolexes the Bahraini royal family delivered to their plane. Hasan first made mention of their unique mandate in May, shortly after returning from the trip.

Bahrain is no stranger to using flashy events to attempt to whitewash its tarnished international reputation. Formula 1 went ahead with the Bahrain Grand Prix earlier this year despite violent clashes between protesters and security forces in the build-up to the race. The country has also enlisted a number of western PR companies to whitewash its image after international condemnation of its human rights record. Its not a stretch to see why Bahrain might find the Millions of Milkshakes’ celebrity-focused approach appealing.

News of Kardashian’s trip coincided with another bizarre Bahraini celebrity story. American rocker and self-proclaimed “Party King” Andrew WK claimed to be headed to the Kingdom on a “partying and world peace”  trip organised by the US Embassy in Manama. His visit was cancelled by the StateDepartment but a State Department spokeswomen told reporters that a “Bahraini entity” approached the Embassy about arranging the trip. The incident raises many questions — who was the “Bahraini entity” that suggested the trip, and why is the US Embassy in Bahrain planning on bringing in celebrities for “inspirational talks”, when it really should be placing pressure on its long-term ally to commit to reform?

Kardashian has close to 17 million Twitter followers (she is the 10th most followed account) and on arrival today she tweeted:

A message that has been retweeted over 2200 times. Kardashian reportedly receives thousands of pounds to promote products via Twitter but even if we take her trip to Bahrain at face value, it’s important to remember that celebrity visits — even if they’re just about milkshakes — are always political.

Sara Yasin is an editorial assistant at Index. She tweets from @missyasin

More on this story:

Free expression: you’re doing it wrong, Bahrain.

Bahrain: blood on the track

Bahrain activists’ trouble with trolls