Why it's a mistake for BTS to perform in Saudi Arabia

By KATIE TAM | September 26, 2019

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TENASIA/CC by S.A-3.0

BTS fails to honor its UNICEF partnership by performing in Saudi Arabia.

My senior year of high school, while procrastinating on writing my college application essays, I stumbled upon a Korean-pop (K-pop) music video by a group known as “Bangtan Sonyeondan” (BTS). Fast forward almost four years, they’re easily one of my favorite musical groups. I have their songs on rotation, have been to multiple concerts of theirs and have created amazing friends thanks to our shared love of them. 

However, this article won’t be singing any of their praises. As much of a fan I am of BTS, being a fan means not only being supportive, but also being able to acknowledge and accept when the person or people you’re a fan of makes mistakes. BTS and their management, BigHit Entertainment, have made a mistake, and I don’t think fans should let it be glossed over.  

On July 19, 2019 it was announced that BTS would be extending their Speak Yourself world tour to Saudi Arabia. Tickets went on sale Monday, Sept. 16. As a fan, I do not hesitate to express my disappointment in the decision to hold a concert there. 

Saudi Arabia has a long track record of human rights abuses, many of which are detailed in the Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report on the country. “Saudi authorities stepped up their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents and activists in 2018, including a large-scale coordinated crackdown against the women’s rights movement beginning in May,” the report reads. The report also detailed the state-sponsored murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed for criticizing the Saudi government. 

Many fans in favor of the concert argue that holding a show in Saudi Arabia is no different than holding one in various other countries with human rights abuses, like the United States. Yet, there is a significant difference between countries like the U.S. and countries like Saudi Arabia. For one, you won’t be killed by the government for writing an article critical of the Trump administration. 

Citizens in Saudi Arabia have little to no political rights or freedoms. Women and other minorities are severely discriminated against and identifying as LGBTQ can result in a death sentence

Another key difference between this concert and concerts in the U.S. and other countries is that this performance is government-sponsored. The concert will be part of a series of entertainment festivals that are aimed at promoting domestic and international tourism to the country. BTS’ ‘Speak Yourself’ concert will fall into the Riyadh Season, and according to Turki Al-Sheikh, an advisor at the Saudi Royal Court, the group was personally contacted by government officials to perform. 

According to Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, these festivals are all aimed at improving the country’s international reputation. “Saudi Arabia is attempting to change the country’s image in part by developing an entertainment industry and hosting concerts by well-known artists, but no public concert can paper over the dramatic decrease of space for free expression in Saudi Arabia since Mohammad bin Salman became crown prince,” Coogle said, according to Middle East Eye.

By agreeing to hold their concert as a part of Riyadh Season, BTS is indirectly supporting a regime that discriminates against, tortures and kills people for issues that are basic human rights. Revenues and taxes associated with the concerts go directly into the Saudi government’s pocket, further funding Saudi operations. 

Nicki Minaj, an artist BTS recently collaborated with, pulled out of a scheduled Saudi concert in July of this year after being sent a five-page letter from Thor Halvorssen, CEO and president of the Human Rights Foundation, detailing the country’s extensive human rights violations. 

“As a global personality, [we request that] you cancel your appearance as a symbol of solidarity with the ongoing suffering of the Saudi people,” the letter reads. BTS, as another global personality, should follow in Minaj’s footsteps. If they do not, it will not only be disappointing, but also extremely hypocritical. 

In recent years, members of BTS have been building their reputation as promoters of self-expression and non-violence. In 2017, the group announced their partnership with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) in the ‘Love Myself’ campaign, and even presented a speech at the United Nations headquarters promoting “speaking yourself,” that is self-expression of one’s self. The campaign promotes and raises funds to support the ending of violence against children and teens around the world. 

BTS performing in Saudi Arabia directly contradicts the message they are trying to convey as UNICEF partners. A Speak Yourself concert in Saudi Arabia promotes the idea of free self-expression in a country where doing so can get you killed. 

In addition, UNICEF has identified Yemen as “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world,” with Yemeni children being particularly affected and vulnerable due to the conflict. UNICEF thus works directly in Yemen to improve conditions for those that live there. 

As mentioned previously, Saudi Arabia is the main instigator of armed conflict in Yemen. BTS performing in this state-sponsored concert thus undermines the goals of the UNICEF campaign that they actively use to promote themselves. How can they claim to want to end violence when they’re complicit in the same regime that perpetuates that violence? It brings up the question of whether they truly believe in what they’re preaching — or if they’re simply using their UNICEF partnership as a way to boost their own international profile. 

Of course, in the end, I don’t know BTS or anyone at BigHit Entertainment, nor do I know their true goals and motivations. So I can’t truly say what their objectives are for performing there. Although I wish it weren’t true, the fact remains that they will be performing in Saudi Arabia in a state-sponsored event. This will no doubt raise questions, and they must be prepared to answer them if they decide to move forward with the concert. 

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