Saudi Arabia is among the top 20 global markets for the Korean pop music known as K-pop, according to new data released by Twitter, as the genre’s boybands and girl groups continue their startling worldwide expansion.
The data, released on Tuesday by Twitter in partnership with K-pop Radar, suggests K-pop has continued its global march despite the coronavirus pandemic preventing live shows and events at home or abroad.
“K-pop is a truly global community on Twitter that has become a growing phenomenon over the past 10 years ... Even during this COVID-19 pandemic when K-pop concerts, global tours and fan appreciation events have been cancelled, we haven’t seen any drop in #KpopTwitter conversations,” said YeonJeong Kim, Head of Global K-pop Partnerships at Twitter.
Outside of South Korea, Saudi Arabia is one of K-pop’s rapidly growing markets.
The Kingdom ranked 17th globally in the number of K-pop unique users on Twitter between July 1, 2019 and June 20, 2020, a period in which the country hosted live concerts featuring BTS and Super Junior – two of the most popular K-pop bands worldwide.
The concerts were among the first live music events hosted in the Kingdom since it began to open up to live entertainment under the Vision 2030 reform plan. Dr. Mohamed Elaskary, an Associate Professer at Hankuk University in Seoul and author of “The Korean Wave in the Middle East: Past and Present,” said the Kingdom’s embrace of K-pop had contributed to the genre’s popularity, which he expects will continue to expand.
“Keeping in mind the new open-door policies and regulations that have been introduced in Saudi Arabia, it is expected that K-pop, as well other musical genres, will continue spreading in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries and that they will build more on the successes they have already made by now,” said Dr. Elaskary.
Given the increasing presence of K-pop in the Kingdom, Al Arabiya English spoke to experts and fans to explain the genre’s meteoric rise – and predict where it may go next.
Al Arabiya English's Reem Krimly contributed to this article.
What is K-pop?
Korean Pop, or K-pop, is a genre of music originating from South Korea that encompasses a variety of styles.
The genre is characterized by boybands and girl groups that perform pop songs to choreographed dances in slick music videos and theatrical live shows. Entertainment companies engage in fierce competition to produce the next big hit in the multi-billion-dollar industry.
The most popular bands boast millions of devoted fans, many of whom follow their band of choice on and off the stage through fan pages, conventions, merchandise and more. With a heavy presence online, these fan groups are known as “K-pop Stans” – social media users whose accounts are dedicated to their favorite band, with each fan group having its own name and online community.
The seven-member boyband BTS, known in full as Bangtan Sonyeondan or the Bangtan Boys, is the most popular K-pop group. Their followers call themselves ‘ARMY’ and number in the millions worldwide.
BTS are synonymous with K-pop’s “third generation” of bands, a reference to the “first generation” – the initial wave of K-pop bands that emerged in the mid-1990s – and the “second generation” of the 2000s. It is this third generation, led by groups such as BTS, EXO, and BlackPink, that has driven K-pop into the global music market.
How did K-pop spread to the Middle East?
The Middle East is no exception to K-pop’s global expansion.
The origins of K-pop’s expansion to the Middle East can be traced to the popularity of Korean television dramas as part of the “Korean Wave” – known as “Hallyu” or “Neo-Hallyu” – when Korean culture began to gain global appeal in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The satellite TV revolution made Korean dramas, many of which originally drew upon Japanese anime that had been dubbed in Arabic, popular in the Arab world, explained Urwa Tariq, a PhD Candidate and Research Assistant in the Mass Communication and Creative Industries Dept, CHSS at the UAE University.
In the 2000s, social media platforms allowed K-pop bands to capitalize on the growing popularity of Korean culture in the region, she added.
“K-pop bands such as Super Junior, Big Bang, 2ne1, SHINee, and TVXQ were big in the mid-2000s, after becoming popular on YouTube. Park Jae-sang, Gangnam style also contributed further in promoting K-pop among youngsters, especially through social media,” Tariq told Al Arabiya English.
“Internet and social media platforms have played a significant role in spreading Korean culture since its start about 20 years ago ... Hundreds of millions of music, dramas, and movie fans worldwide, especially young generations, can now access billions of media materials by just a click on their smart phones or PCs,” added Dr. Elaskary.
Since around 2010, Twitter appears to have cemented K-pop’s popularity through the formation of fan groups and communities who connect on the site using hashtags and online campaigns.
“The open and public nature of Twitter has enabled K-pop fans to engage within their communities on a global scale without any physical limitations,” suggested Kim, adding that “We see a large volume of K-pop fan accounts being created in the MENA region that share updates and actually translate Tweets by K-pop celebrities to be shared with the community."
K-pop fans frequently use Twitter’s hashtag function to raise awareness of their group or promote them in a competition, she explained.
These fan groups have their own regional accounts, with Twitter users such as “@kpopinarab” that has 838,000 followers and “@Kpopallday__” with 315,000 followers providing commentary on and translations of K-pop songs in Arabic.
K-pop fans who spoke to Al Arabiya English confirmed the prevalence of first television and then social media in the spread of the genre.
“As an old follower of the world of Hallyu since 2002, I began writing about this world for the Arabs interested in the K-pop culture,” said Saudi Arabian fan Naseem Mohammed, a 32-year-old from Riyadh who has a blog on Korean culture.
Physical visits from K-pop bands to the region also helped cement the genre’s popularity.
BTS sparked hype after filming their visit to UAE in 2016, and in 2018 massive crowds gathered in Dubai – reportedly forcing roads to close – when EXO visited the city to perform in front of the Dubai fountain.
In Saudi Arabia, Super Junior played as part of the Kingdom’s Jeddah Season on June 12, 2019, with videos of screaming K-pop fans chanting the group’s name challenging many outsiders’ view of the Kingdom.
BTS then kicked off the Kingdom’s Riyadh Season in October 2019, performing to a packed arena in what is considered a landmark event for the launch of the Kingdom’s rapidly expanding entertainment sector.
Why is K-pop so popular in Saudi Arabia?
Fans told Al Arabiya English they liked K-pop because of its diversity, creativity, difference to Western and Arab music, and interactivity on social media.
“Korean bands showcase perfection and idealism, and their debut to the public is not due to sheer luck, and I think this is one of the reasons there is a huge K-pop following, and I am one of them,” said a 27-year-old Saudi Arabian fan from Riyadh who asked to remain anonymous.
“K-pop is not only pop music, it is a sea of creativity, diversity, innovation, it is an art that studies all the details of its work creatively. Every album release is preceded by a lot of preparation and fans are given hints, photos and advertisements releases; it is exciting up until the final release and then the promotional phase and performances of concerts and programs take place,” they added.
Taghreed Mohammed, a K-pop fan from Jeddah who said her team was in charge of organizing fan events at the 2019 Super Junior concert in the city, also pointed to the genre’s diversity and contrasted it to the music industries in other countries.
“The reason for the large audience for K-pop is that it has a different color and flavor than Arabic music, in addition to K-pop artists interacting with their Arab fans through social media, receiving gifts from them and thanking them for them,” agreed Naseem Mohammed, the blogger from Riyadh.
Experts also pointed to the lack of nudity or clothing that could be considered vulgar in some Islamic cultures as part of the appeal, particularly to women.
“Singers and performers as well are usually dressed in modest uniforms which reveal their bodies. K-pop has no or very few obscene words and hence would not contradict Islamic ethics,” said Dr. Elaskary.
“Today’s young audience want something different, unique, clean content with meaningful lyrics which go with their cultural beliefs, so they feel that Korean pop [is] clean in terms of language and content, compared to the other foreign media they had been exposed to,” explained Tariq.
She said that participants in her research into K-pop in the region had used words such as “cute,” “shy,” “approachable,” and “lack of vulgarity” to describe the genre.
Tariq added that as women tend to stay at home and consume media more than men, they have been more prone to discovering foreign cultural media such as K-pop.
“They feel that Arab and Korean cultures share common grounds. In both cultures, poetry, romance, social relationships and friendships are highly valued, especially by women. Interestingly, Arab men do not find K-pop appealing as women because femininity is the key concept of Korean culture,” she added.
Which K-pop bands are popular in Saudi Arabia?
Unsurprisingly, global superstars BTS are the most popular K-pop band in Saudi Arabia, according to the Twitter data. Their fans – known as ARMY – dominate the global rankings for almost all the top 20 K-pop markets globally.
The second most mentioned artist on K-pop Twitter in the Kingdom was EXO, also a popular choice worldwide.
More uniquely, Saudi Arabia also ranked Super Junior among their top five bands, with Mexico the only other top 20 market doing so.
The group’s popularity may stem from their live performance in the Kingdom in 2019, suggested Kim.
Boyband TXT – also the band most rising in popularity by mentions – and all-girl group BlackPink completed the top five. ATEEZ and Stray Kids also appeared in both the current and rising top 10 lists.
The most popular song mentioned in Saudi Arabia was BTS – “On,” followed by EXO’s “Obsession.”
What’s next for K-pop in Saudi Arabia?
The Twitter data suggests that K-pop will continue to expand in Saudi Arabia and beyond, a view supported by voices from the Kingdom.
Fedros Sleiman, a teacher and language instructor who taught at a Korean school in Jeddah, told Al Arabiya English that young Saudi Arabians were already showing an interest in K-pop at the elementary level.
“A few of my students are interested in K-pop, especially the way the singers dress and dance. The kids (girls) like how cute they look and try to imitate them,” she said.
And if the world manages to bring the global coronavirus pandemic under control, it seems likely that a range of new K-pop concerts could add new fans to the existing Twitter community that has kept the genre alive over the last nine months.
“K-pop stans want to stay connected with each other and have their voices heard on Twitter, whether they are cheering for their favorite artist’s new song or participating in movements. We can’t wait to see what the next 10 years of K-pop and Twitter bring to the world,” said Kim.