The truth behind the Middle East’s obsession with K-pop

The truth behind the Middle East’s obsession with K-pop
BTS is the most streamed K-pop group in the MENA region. (File/Getty)
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Updated 14 July 2020

The truth behind the Middle East’s obsession with K-pop

The truth behind the Middle East’s obsession with K-pop
  • Wholesome lyrics, positive messages and a dedicated translation service are just part of the appeal

DUBAI: In a strange parallel universe somewhere, 2020 has already seen two K-pop festivals in the Middle East — two Dubai gigs, 10 K-pop acts and a world free from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that only resorts to serious mask-wearing when it comes to Halloween.

Unfortunately, the reality hasn’t been quite so favorable to your average K-pop fan in the region. The much-anticipated Music Bank Show fell victim to a COVID-19 cancellation, and the K-pop Super Concert followed suit — both events part of a lost weekend at Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena. But while live music might have succumbed, K-pop’s march into the hearts and minds of Middle Eastern fans remains pandemic-proof. 

It’s easy to forget that this is a genre that came about with shaky credibility and little appeal outside Korea. Now, the figures are staggering. K-pop kings BTS are lauded globally, and last year Blackpink became the first K-pop girl group to play Coachella — achieving the highest of cool points in the process.

Blackpink became the first K-pop girl group to play Coachella. (AFP)

Spotify dials things down like this: The big five MENA streamers of K-pop (January 2014-2020) are Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Morocco and Algeria, in that order. If you’re streaming, chances are it’s “Boy With Luv” by BTS and Halsey — the most streamed K-pop track in the MENA region for that time period. And while Saudi Arabia might boast the biggest market, Egypt is the most rapidly developing, with a 33 percent increase in K-pop streaming between January 2019-2020. 

But to limit the ways in which the Middle East loves K-pop to a simple playlist would be reductive. Look at the 60,000 fans that poured into Riyadh last year to see a groundbreaking show from BTS — also a signifier of greater cultural freedoms in the Kingdom. How about the hundreds of social media fan pages that beat algorithms to drive success for their idols? The BTS UAE Army, the band’s biggest collection of fans in the country, recently pushed an “All Kill” week in English and Arabic. The aim was to get a different song from the “Map of The Soul: 7” album to the number one spot in the UAE iTunes chart each day for a week. It worked, too. Still not impressed? How about this: Last year, so many people wanted to catch a glimpse of EXO in Dubai that they had to close the roads. 

The last time EXO were in Dubai, they had to close the roads. (Dubai Culture)

As K-pop has grown in the region, so too has a K-based fascination in other areas, with fans only too willing to immerse themselves in the culture from top to bottom. 

“K-pop isn’t just limited to just Korean pop music,” says Ren, an admin for @bangtanuae, the Instagram page for the BTS UAE Army. “It’s a mixture of food, fashion, language, traditions and the country itself. We really just want to learn about Korean culture.”

It certainly doesn’t take long to see that Ren, and others like her, are part of a movement in the Middle East. From supermarkets packed with kimchi to restaurants serving up a spin on the classic hotteok pancakes, Korean culture here is booming, and it has been ably assisted by official efforts to strengthen ties between the two regions, neatly signposted by last year’s Korea Festival in the UAE. You might think that Feb. 14 is Valentine’s Day, but you’d be wrong. It’s officially Emirati-Korean Friendship Day — and has been since 2015.

But while the strength of K-power in the region is clearly visible, the question of why it resonates so much might not be immediately obvious. Success for an artist who sings in his or her own language outside of that language’s region is no easy ride.


YouTube data~ 13/07/2020 #BTS Stats Update : UAE ranks #42 worldwide for Top country viewers of @BTS_twt videos - Within UAE, Dubai ranks #1 with over 8 million+ views on BTS videos - Within UAE, BTS ranks #10 on the top Music Charts & Insights -UAE’s total plays(views) on BTS videos -First picture is from last 7 days, Second is from last 28 days. -The huge peak in the chart happened during Stay Gold MV release. Stats are overall good but let’s do better for next comeback! - ‎بيانات اليوتيوب في المركز ٤٢ على مستوى العالم من الدول الإكثر مشاهدة لفيديوهات بانقتان ‏- في الإمارات، دبي في المركز الأول مع أكثر من ٨ مليون مشاهدة ‏- فيديوهات بانقتان في المركز العاشر في الدولة في فئة Music Charts ‏إجمالي عدد المشاهدات لفيديوهات بانقتان ‏- الصورة الأولى للأيام السبعة الماضية. ‏- الصورة الثانية للأيام ال٢٨ الماضية. ‏القمّة التي في الرسم البياني هو من يوم نشر الفيديو لأغنية Stay Gold ‏بشكل عام الإحصائيات جيدة و لكن يجب أن نعمل أكثر للعودة القادمة! - Admin: BLU

A post shared by BTS UAE (@bangtanuae) on

Perhaps it all lies in the echoes between Korean and Arab life? In “The Korean Wave: Past and Present,” Mohamed Elaskary, a professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, cites the author SW Kim to explain how the Middle East sees itself in K-pop.

“Cultural factors play an important role in the success of Hallyu (the Korean Wave) in the Arab world,” he explains. “Among these factors are the social habits and customs that Arabs share with Koreans, such as family bonds, love stories that are not explicit, friendship and altruism. Compared to Western pop music, with its nudity and obscene lyrics, K-pop fits well into mainstream Arab societies.”

When it comes to the language barrier, K-pop fans don’t really seem to mind that either. Those who don’t simply love it for the catchy melodies or elaborate dance routines just tackle the issue head-on.

“Within the BTS ARMY fandom we have lots of people who volunteer to translate everything the band releases,” Ren said. “Often in many different languages and almost instantly too!” 

And if you think an unofficial translation service is a sign of dedication, then others take it a step further. 

“A couple of years ago, I came across a Korean TV series called 꽃보다 남자, which roughly translates to ‘Boys Over Flowers,’” says Egypt-based Menna Mahmoud, who discovered her love of K-pop through the country’s other great export: K-drama.

‘Boys Over Flowers’ (Supplied)

“I liked how funny it was, but I didn’t like that it was dubbed in Arabic, so I decided to start learning Korean,” she said. “I did it for a couple of months and it was really fun. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I could probably just about understand the events of a TV series without resorting to the subtitles button.”

Mahmoud isn’t alone in this; Korean is now one of the most in-demand languages to learn across the Middle East. It’s worth noting that the cultural exchange can be a two-way process, and Korean boy band BIG now sing in both Korean and Arabic.

K-pop’s rise to global prominence has been no accident. In the midst of the Asian economic crisis of the late 90s, it was decided that Korea should attempt to diversify its export power. As a result, the former president, Kim Jae-Dung, was persuaded to use cultural output to help fuel his country’s resurgence. In that respect, K-pop is less an organic trend, more a concerted effort from a nation looking for a soft-power approach to better days. Either way, the move has paid off handsomely.

“K-pop and K-drama play a vital role in Korean imports and tourism to Korea,” explains Elaskary. “Hallyu products, such as K-pop, K-drama and K-beauty, are a driving force in an era of cultural economy products. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, travel every year to visit the places where K-pop songs and K-drama series have been shot, and Korean companies utilize the success of K-pop and K-drama to promote their businesses.”

While the hard-nosed capitalism behind K-pop’s rise might feel a little jarring, the wholesome message of the music remains at the root of its success in the Middle East — and in that respect, it has the power to change lives here, too.

“The music is just so empowering,” says Anne, an admin for the @unitedblinks, the Instagram fanpage for Blackpink UAE. “When I hit rock bottom, Blackpink’s words were straightforward, strong, and motivational. It’s like they were telling me that sulking won’t solve anything, that I should get up and fix myself, because the world doesn’t revolve around me.”