K-pop superstars BTS have been accused of “whitewashing” Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by performing in the ultraconservative kingdom, despite calls for the Korean group to withdraw from the concert.
The group became the first non-Arab artists to do a stadium concert in the kingdom when they performed at Riyadh’s King Fahd International Stadium on Friday, before an audience of some 30,000 fans.
“Rather than using their platform to denounce the Saudi regime’s abuses, BTS chose to whitewash the regime’s human rights violations by performing in Riyadh today,” the New York-based Human Rights Foundation said in in a tweet on Friday.
“HRF calls on celebrities to think twice before endorsing authoritarian regimes.”
Saudi Arabia has come under increased international scrutiny for its human rights record in the past year, particularly since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October.
The Khashoggi killing, which a UN investigation concluded had been ordered from the highest echelons of the Saudi government, brought Riyadh’s human rights record to the fore.
Meanwhile, in the past year, Saudi authorities under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have arrested and imprisoned dozens of women’s rights activists, clerics and other prominent public figures.
The detentions have run alongside Prince Mohammed’s drive to rebrand the kingdom as a forward-thinking hub for culture, tourism and entertainment.
Calls for BTS to pull the Riyadh gig began when the seven-piece group first announced the concert in July.
Using the twitter hashtag #BTSDontGo, fans and human rights activists urged the group not to go to Riyadh, using the hashtag to highlight Saudi Arabia’s track record on human rights.
“This is such a bad business move this is really a big f*** you Saudi women, LGBTQ fans but also to Muslim fans especially what happening in Yemen… doesn’t this contradict their message? Of love yourself?” one Twitter user said before the concert.
“The prince had someone executed, gay people are publicly whipped and thousands are tortured because they dare to speak out about the regime… this is not a good thing they are going here,” another said.
After the concert, some fans slammed the Human Rights Foundation for having allegedly left it until the last minute to speak out against the performance.
“Where have you been all this time? Asleep?” wrote one fan in response to the HRF “whitewashing” tweet.
“You should have gotten involved before the concert, not after!!” wrote another.
BTS stood by their decision to perform in Riyadh, telling the Hollywood Reporter earlier in October that they “go where people want to see us”.
Once in Riyadh, the group were greeted by around a hundred fans at the airport.
Despite their star status, however, BTS’s were required to modify their performance to suit local customs.
“In consideration of local sentiment, some dance moves that involve revealing a member’s abdominal muscles [were] modified,” BTS’ management said.
Artists booked for tours in Saudi Arabia have come under increasing pressure from fans to reconsider their engagements due to Riyadh’s human rights record.
Earlier this year, US rapper Nicki Minaj withdrew from a booking in the kingdom, citing her concerns about LGBTQ and women’s rights in her decision.
Other artists, meanwhile, have continued with their bookings, including Mariah Carey, 50 Cent and David Guetta.