K-pop’s (BTS/Super Junior/Stray Kids) inroads in Saudi Arabia leads to understandably mixed reactions

Almost a week ago, Super Junior and then Stray Kids made history by becoming the first K-pop groups to perform in Saudi Arabia after they showed out at the Jeddah Season festival.

Recently, BTS announced dates in Saudi Arabia as a part of Riyadh Season festival.

The problem? It’s a part of the same Seasons series that even Nicki Minaj recently cancelled on due to ongoing abuses of human rights, perhaps most notably the execution of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“After careful reflection I have decided to no longer move forward with my scheduled concert at Jeddah World Fest,” Minaj said in a statement released to the Associated Press. “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.”

That change of heart came after the Human Rights Foundation called on her to cancel her appearance. And they continue to call on other artists to do the same for rather logical reasons.

British pop star Liam Payne is still scheduled to perform at a concert next week in Saudi Arabia. The Jeddah World Fest is funded and authorized by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), one of the world’s worst human rights violators. The Human Rights Foundation is urging Payne to cancel his July 18 performance and use his global influence and platform in solidarity with the Saudi women’s rights activists who are currently in prison. Payne, an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, will be performing for a regime where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment or death. In April of this year, five men were beheaded by the Saudi government after enduring months of torture and admitting to sexual relations with other men.

HRF sent Payne and his managers a letter describing the human rights crisis in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a fully authoritarian regime under which there is no independent judiciary, no independent media, and where citizens have no freedom of thought, expression, religion or association. There is no guarantee of independence in the administration of justice or respect for the fundamental rights of people who live in Saudi Arabia. This is especially true for those who openly express their disagreement with the government, such as the women who advocated to lift the driving ban in Saudi Arabia and who are currently in jail, where they are being subjected to torture by electric shock, flogging, and rape.

HRF has written individually to each of these performers and explicitly referenced their previous positions on matters of women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, public policy, and police brutality. These letters describe the disastrous state of human rights in Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by a fully authoritarian regime under which there is no independent judiciary, no independent media, and where citizens have no freedom of thought, expression, religion, or association. There is no guarantee of independence in the administration of justice or respect for the fundamental rights of people who live in Saudi Arabia. This is especially true for those who openly express their disagreement with the government, such as the women who advocated to lift the driving ban and who are currently in jail, where they are being subjected to torture by electric shock, flogging, and rape.

Despite this, many fans have argued in favor of Super Junior and Stray Kids, but most of the debate in the K-pop world now centers around BTS and the first ever solo stadium concert in the country, as The Korea Herald recently noted. Proponents of BTS’s concert say this is part of the reform going on in the country.

“Saudi Arabia is a very conservative country and it is trying to open up more in recent years,” said In Nam-sik, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy who specializes in the Middle East. “Until recently, concerts were forbidden, but the country started to acknowledge that people want cultural events. Saudi Arabia wants to show the world that it is changing. Allowing BTS to perform in the country is a significant step in its reform endeavor.”

Critics would say the exact opposite. That it supports a regime more interested in reforming their economy than society, and is using this to try and paper over horrific human rights abuses. CodePink, who is advocating for a boycott, has written BTS an open letter asking them to pull out of the event.

Your positive message calling on people to love themselves and to speak out could easily land you in prison in Saudi Arabia–and get your beheaded. A young Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who was speaking for himself by calling for a more open, liberal society, has been languishing in prison on a 10-year sentence. The Saudi regime just beheaded 37 people, including three young men arrested as juveniles for taking part in peaceful protests. Saudi Arabia does not allow LBGTQ+ individuals to be who they are — just three months ago Saudi Arabia executed five men for the “crime” homosexuality after exacting confessions from them through torture. Thousands of children in neighboring Yemen are dying because of Saudi bombs and the consequences of war. Since 2015 Saudi Arabia has been waging a war on Yemen so brutal that some 85,000 children under the age of five have died of hunger and more continue to perish every day. According to the UN, every 10 minutes a Yemeni child dies from war and hunger. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has still not been held accountable for the barbaric murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose dead body was chopped up with a bone saw. Though Saudi women have recently seen a small increase basic rights, the very women who campaigned for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia have been arrested, imprisoned, and tortured — electroshock, beatings, sexual harassment and waterboarding. Under the oppressive male guardianship system, women in Saudi Arabia need permission from a male to travel, study, obtain a passport, marry, and engage in other life events.

As for Big Hit Entertainment, who this decision ultimately rests on, they seem content to collect the check and pass on addressing it at all.

BTS’ agency Big Hit Entertainment declined to comment on the decision to schedule a concert in Saudi Arabia.

Welp.

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I understand BTS fans getting upset that the backlash is centered around BTS performing in Saudi Arabia and not Super Junior or Stray Kids, who actually did it first. That said, they are not exactly equal either. BTS are obviously more popular and neither of those two groups have built their brand around being socially conscious (like, say, being UNICEF ambassadors who spoke at the UN), so it’s only natural that they are held to a different standard. Can’t have your cake and eat it too, so to speak.

I also understand the proponents of holding concerts in the region. I’m sure there are fans out there who, in good faith, truly do believe that these shows contribute to progress in the region and/or simply want fans to be able to see their faves. Additionally, I understand the points that human rights abuses occur in America, China, United Kingdom, and many other countries K-pop stars perform in. I sympathize with their point of view.

Yet, as somebody cynical of human nature, I have to agree with those who feel this sudden “progressive” movement in Saudi Arabia seems like an attempt to provide the facade of social reform while substantive change is lacking, and is primarily aimed to be an economic reform and public relations initiative for the Crown. And as much as I understand calling out places like America, which I have no problem doing myself because I’m not a nationalist shitheel, there are levels to things like this and (for example) I’m glad I can write these criticisms without risk of being murdered or imprisoned by the government.

Personally, I do hope BTS pull out of the concert as they have the potential to set the tone in the region for K-pop, in general. But if they don’t, I don’t blame them and I don’t think it reflects as poorly on BTS as Big Hit. I guess it would just be more of a letdown than anything else.

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