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K-pop in Middle East: formerly uncharted territory turns into new realm for artists

INDIO, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 19: Blackpink perform at the Sahara Tent during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 19, 2019 in Indio, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Coachella)

K-pop agencies drawn by Middle Eastern countries’ young population, economic power.

The Middle East was unchartered territory for K-pop until recently. K-pop stars frequently performed in Asia, America and Europe, but rarely visited the Islamic world mainly because of its conservative culture that did not welcome undue foreign influence.

But this is a story of the past. A series of K-pop concerts and festivals have taken place in the Middle East over the last couple of years. On Sept. 10, more than 10 K-pop acts including P1Harmony took the stage at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi ― one of the most iconic music and entertainment venues in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ― as part of the HYPEROUND K-FEST. From Sept. 30 to Oct. 1, the annual Korean culture convention “KCON,” organized by entertainment behemoth CJ ENM, will be held at Boulevard Riyadh City in Saudi Arabia for the first time, inviting big-name groups like New Jeans, ATEEZ, STAYC and The Boyz as performers.

Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud also paid his visit to Seoul in June and had a meeting with Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment that represents K-pop bigwigs including EXO, NCT and aespa. The two reportedly discussed collaboration in the cultural field, with Lee telling the minister he would like to produce music for Saudi pop (S-pop) and build a cultural ecosystem for young people there.

Saudi Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, left, talks with Lee Soo-man, the founder of SM Entertainment, at the headquarters of SM in Seongdong District in Seoul in June. Courtesy of SM Entertainment

In fact, K-pop’s growing clout in the Middle East has been quite visible since 2019. That year, BTS became the first non-Arab artist to stage a concert at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, just three months after Super Junior became the first Asian artist to play a solo concert in the kingdom.

Lee Gyu-tag, an associate professor of cultural studies at George Mason University Korea, predicts that K-pop stars will become more active in the Islamic world where the music market has strong potential.

“Numerous countries in the Middle East have young populations (that enjoy music and pop culture) and economic power driven by oil exports,” Lee told The Korea Times.

According to the latest data by independent think tank, Youth Policy Labs, over 28 percent of the population of the Middle East (108 million people) is aged between 15 and 29. Data platform Statista revealed that the Middle East accounts for 31.3 percent of global oil production, producing 28.2 million barrels per day in 2021. Saudi Arabia, for instance, earns $1 billion every day from oil exports, the kingdom’s statistics office said in May.

“If a K-pop group makes a splash in the Middle East, it can naturally spread its name to people in other Islamic countries around the world, revving up its international presence,” the professor explained. “I think many stars are first setting their foot into Saudi Arabia, as it is one of the leading Middle Eastern countries in the field of culture.”

In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced Saudi Vision 2030, an economic and social reform plan aiming to reduce the country’s dependence on crude oil. Saudi Arabia’s culture minister told The Korea Times in a recent interview that the ministry’s goal is to have its culture sector contribute more than $23 billion to its economy by 2030.

In this 2019 file photo, BTS members perform during their concert at King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Big Hit Music

For the Middle Eastern countries, opening their doors to K-pop is a means to boost their culture and entertainment industry, says Eum Ik-ran, a professor at the college of liberal arts at Dankook University, who earned her Ph.D. in Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter.

“To prepare for possible oil depletion, the Middle Eastern countries have been seeking economic diversification by developing industries other than oil, such as culture, tourism and finance,” Eum told The Korea Times.

“These countries are organizing K-pop concerts to ditch their conservative images and show the world that they have become more open-minded,” Eum noted.

“They believe such an approach can help them attract more foreign tourists and investors. Instead of putting more restrictions on young people and demand that they follow Wahhabism ― an intolerant Islamic reform movement opposing all practices not sanctioned by the Quran ― they are now unlocking their doors to gain soft power and disseminate their own culture. In the past, the Middle Eastern countries put more emphasis on hard power stemming from the economy and the military, but today, they are shifting to prioritize soft power, joining a fight for superiority in the cultural field to become a cultural hub.”

K-pop girl group New Jeans is set to perform at the upcoming KCON, which will be held on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 at Boulevard Riyadh City in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of ADOR

The two experts stressed that K-pop stars need to understand and respect Islamic culture if they want to stay out of trouble.

In 2015, K-pop boy band B1A4 sparked controversy after hugging Malaysian female fans during a concert in the Southeast Asian country, where more than a half of the population is Muslim. Numerous local people insisted the girls were “molested” by the K-pop act, as Islamic tradition prohibits a woman wearing a hijab from having physical contact with an unknown man in a public space.

“It seems the K-pop industry needs more Middle East experts who have a broader understanding of Islamic culture and a good command of Arabic,” Lee said. “Since religion is inseparable from politics in many of these countries, K-pop record labels should carefully map out plans before entering the market, so that they can deal with unexpected regulations and risks caused by religious issues. I think the idea of promoting S-pop is clever, because local people will find S-pop groups more familiar.”

Eum added that K-pop should refrain from being excessively commercial.

“Many Middle Eastern countries want to learn from Korea, knowing how the country rose from the ashes of the 1950-53 Korean War. Many people do love K-pop as it sounds and looks different from the music genres they are familiar with, but the fact that a lot of management companies just churn out singers like factories and produce cookie-cutter songs is limiting their further growth in the region, with only teenagers showing their interest in our music. For its sustainability, we need to devise more strategies to target the older generation.”

Source : Korea Times