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Investigating the Meteoric Rise of K-Pop, Korean Dramas, Beauty, and Fashion in the Middle East

With its catchy melodies, viral choreography, and charismatic performers, K-pop has become a global phenomenon. Vogue Arabia investigates its meteoric rise in the Middle East.

Dubai dance crew Prism. Photo: Aqib Anwar

Capturing the imagination of youngsters across the world, K-pop is now a cultural juggernaut. And with its help, fashion and jewelry brands from Dior to Bulgari are inciting mayhem not seen since the 60s. As K-pop stars attend their shows and events, throngs of screaming fans turn up, waiting for hours just for a glimpse of their idols. Owing to Enhypen, featured on the cover of this edition of Vogue Arabia, Prada pulled in impressive numbers, ranking second among brands in earned media value for SS24 with US$41 922 484. Enhypen stood ahead of the likes of Zendaya and Kylie Jenner, according to Vogue Business. Meanwhile, Arabia has evolved into one of the genre’s most voracious consumers.

Although South Korea and the Middle East are physically distant, the emergence of K-pop as a Gen Z zeitgeist has built a cultural bridge between the two worlds. The region has become a hotbed of K-pop fandom and is now a must-visit destination for many of Korea’s biggest artists. In October, Boulevard Riyadh City played host to KCON, the biggest global fan celebration of Korean music and culture. More than 23 000 people descended on the Saudi Arabian capital for the event, which included a concert that was live-streamed to 3.5 million more fans online.

Korean chef and language teacher Hyeyeon Lee and Syrian chef Maha Nakli. Photo: Aqib Anwar

KCON was organized by CJ ENM, one of the world’s leading Korean entertainment companies, which has also presented editions of the event in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Bangkok. Steve Chung, the chief global officer and CEO of CJ ENM America, says it is not surprising that K-pop has captivated the Middle East. “With K-pop, the fan is not a bystander, they are at the center as an active participant with the artists,” Chung explains. “As we are talking about a region with high numbers of young people who are social natives, this level of interaction and intimacy with artists is really appealing. It is all about the fandom.”

Among that thriving Middle East fandom is dance group The Pixies, a collective of K-pop-obsessed UAE residents who meet to practice routines from their favorite artists. The group also performs publicly and has taken to the stage at major events including Gitex 2023, Chinese New Year celebrations at Expo City, and Dubai’s Korean fanzone during the Fifa World Cup. “It was BTS who got me into K-pop and I’m sure it’s a similar story for a lot of people here,” says Nesrine Naaman, an active member of The Pixies. “BTS is super smart with their marketing and content and so you feel like you know them on a personal level because they let you inside their lives. It goes beyond the music; you follow what they are doing and because they speak a different language, you have this curiosity about wanting to learn Korean too.”

Middle East dance group The Pixies. Photo: Aqib Anwar

Many of The Pixies have taken Korean lessons and immersed themselves in the culture beyond K-pop. This is something that CJ ENM chief Chung experienced himself first-hand during KCON in Riyadh. “I was fascinated about what motivated the fans to show up in the thousands, so I approached a group and asked them,” Chung recalls. “I was shocked when these 18 and 19-year-old Saudi girls responded to me in fluent Korean, explaining how much they love K-pop and K-dramas. For someone to voluntarily learn a language because they like the content so much – that’s a lot of commitment. That’s not a casual fan. I really saw the depth of the passion.”

It was in the 1990s that K-pop initially found popular appeal beyond Korea, with Japan among the first to be wooed by its neighbor’s catchy music. Fast forward 30 years and the likes of Red Velvet, Twice, and Stray Kids are hitting charts around the world, while Korean smash hit Squid Game is now the No. 1 streamed TV show ever globally. Social media platforms have aided the rapid development of fan communities, which are often initially built online but evolve into in-person meet-ups. One of K-pop’s most popular concepts is Random Play Dance (RPD) – imagine a wholesome rap-battle-meets-flashmob in public spaces – which helps forge deeper friendships between those participating.

TikTok beauty content creator Saimah Mohammed. Photo: Aqib Anwar

Several members of The Pixies describe how they felt alone before discovering like-minded lovers of K-pop and dancing. Their inclusive community has members between the ages of 15 and 26, from countries as diverse as Philippines, Lebanon, Thailand, Jordan, Japan, India, and China. “For us, The Pixies is not just a dance group – though of course it’s a really fun experience whenever we dance together,” 20-year-old member Rim Hammoud says. “It feels like more of a family. We hang out and go out, we celebrate together. Maybe one day we can all even go to Korea together.”

The stats around K-pop certainly back-up the sentiment. Figures released exclusively to Vogue Arabia by Spotify Mena show just how stratospheric the genre’s growth has been, with streams of K-pop in the region rising a staggering 22 900% since 2018. BTS leads the way in Mena streaming, followed by Jung Kook, Blackpink, Jimin, and Stray Kids. “Initially, K-pop struck a chord with young Arab fans because of how the non-explicit lyrics and the storylines resonated with Arab values, albeit delivered with at fresh, energetic beat and a splash of vibrant aesthetics,” Spotify’s head of music for Mena, Mark Abou Jaoude, says. “As the genre continues to evolve, K-pop is pushing its boundaries with international collaborations, a fusion of hip-hop, and infectious dance beats – trends we’re also witnessing in Arabic music. This shared evolution in musical experimentation resonates strongly with the region’s Gen-Zers and millennials, keeping K-pop fandom alive,” he says.

K-drama enthusiast and reviewer Deema Abu Naser. Photo: Aqib Anwar

It is not just Korean music that has captured the imagination of people in the Middle East. Palestinian Deema Abu Naser was just 11 years old when she first started watching Korean TV shows. Now 25, she has emerged as one of the leading authorities on K-drama in the Arab world, posting regular reviews and recommendations to more than half a million followers across both Instagram and TikTok from her @deemalovesdrama account. “I never would have thought watching K-dramas would become my full-time job,” Abu Naser laughs. “When I was growing up, I felt like the only person who was watching them, and there was no one to really talk to about them. Now there is this huge community enjoying them with me that’s only getting bigger and bigger.” Abu Naser saw a particular increase in interest in K-dramas during the Covid-19 pandemic and feels Netflix has played an important role in promoting the genre, with Korean shows regularly appearing in the platform’s Top 10 most-watched in the UAE.

The secret to the success of K-dramas, she insists, is that their stories are extremely compelling. “There is a lot to love; K-dramas are bingeable, and they are original, but at their heart, the storytelling is just really good and that pulls people in.”

A cultural resonance also exists in the Middle East beyond K-dramas’ production value and K-pop’s catchy melodies. Song lyrics and storylines often explore the role of family at the center of life and the difficulties of relationships in a way that is eminently relatable to young people in the Arab world. The response, in terms of consumption of music, TV, and films, has been remarkable. “There are so many fans of K-dramas and K-pop here now and it is great how many more opportunities there are now for them to engage with these programs and people who they love,” Abu Naser says. “There’s KCON in Saudi Arabia, and concerts happening every month – I’m just really proud to be a part of such a positive community.”

Lailah Rasheed, Radio 1 RJ and host of podcast kpopkornerdxb. Photo: Aqib Anwar

Whether K-dramas or K-pop, food or fashion, the Arab world’s love affair with Korean culture is certainly showing no signs of cooling. The content-driven, social media-centric world of K-pop has romanced a generation of young people in the region, who can access their idols anytime and feel like co-collaborators in artists’ stories. According to CJ ENM chief Chung, the next chapter in the K-culture story in the Middle East may involve Arab singing talent sharing the spotlight with Korean artists, as well as local adaptations of some of the biggest Korean shows and movies. It seems the relationship between South Korea and the Arab world is one that is built to last. “With more than 400 million Arabic speakers around the world, why would we not look at new K-pop and K-drama partnerships?” Chung considers. “We’ve done it in other markets with remakes and local talent shows, and we know the fandom not only exists here, but is strong. There are exciting opportunities ahead.”

Originally published in the December 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Production: Ankita Chandra, Hamna Iqbal 

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