Despite the backlash, the boy band spoke out on the decision to perform in the capital, Riyadh, on October 11, saying it was not an easy one to make.
“I wouldn’t say it was easy,” rapper RM – whose real name is Kim Nam-joon – told The Hollywood Reporter last week. “But we were officially invited. It’s been a while since we’ve performed in the Middle East.”
Fellow band member Park Ji-min, who goes by the stage name Jimin, added: “If there’s a place where people want to see us, we’ll go there. That’s really how we feel.”
Under the oversight of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia is attempting to paint itself as a tourist destination, in conjunction with adopting reformist policies and loosening restrictions on entertainment.
Over the past several months, the kingdom has seen performances by singers including Mariah Carey, Enrique Iglesias, the Black Eyed Peas and Sean Paul, as well as DJs David Guetta and Tiesto.
However, Saudi Arabia maintains a strong hold on opposition and dissident voices by imprisoning them, and rights groups have criticised the social reforms as cosmetic changes.
Executions, which include beheading, are still routinely carried out in the kingdom as part of its criminal justice system. In 2018, 139 people were executed, including 54 convicted of non-violent crimes.
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While women are now allowed to drive and attend events in sports stadiums, gender segregation between single men and women is still enforced in many restaurants, coffee shops, public schools and universities. Same-sex relationships are illegal, and unmarried couples face arrest.
Furthermore, the killing and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year, which Turkish and US intelligence claim MBS was behind, has tainted Saudi’s global image. While the crown prince recently accepted responsibility for the murder because it happened under his watch, he reiterated that he had nothing to do with the killing.
Meanwhile, Saudi’s four-year deadlocked war against its poor neighbour Yemen has left the country on the brink of famine, with thousands killed and millions more displaced.
Last July, American rapper Nicki Minaj cancelled a scheduled performance in the country, saying it was important for her to support for the rights of women, the LGBTQ community and freedom of expression.