Seoul Music: South Korea Woos the Gulf
March 9, 2016
Some treat diplomacy in the Middle East like political theater—but for South Korea, it’s more of a musical.
For decades, Korea’s relationship with the region has been staked in an exchange of energy and construction contracts. Now, Korea sees a chance to deepen and broaden ties with Gulf states pushing to diversify their economies. Seoul is positioning itself to be a top GCC partner in everything from agriculture to IT innovation to medical tourism. To draw closer into the Gulf’s orbit, it is turning to a familiar playbook of cultural exports.
While many states view cultural diplomacy as window dressing, Korea’s leaders have adopted it as a central soft power tool. Spreading Korean pop culture—long a juggernaut in Asia—is seen as a way to expand markets and energize tourism.
To woo the Gulf, Korea broadcasts radio programs in Arabic on K-pop hits and celebrities, while corporate Korean events might close with a band flown in from Seoul. Korean soap operas are hits on Arab television. Their social conservatism resonates well with local culture, and they portray an orderly and glamorous lifestyle that is appealing.
The UAE, Korea’s strategic partner in the region, has become a laboratory for the attempt to build a love for all things Korean. A top Korean media promoter plans to fill a 25,000-person arena in Abu Dhabi for a K-pop concert this month. The top-tier tickets, costing $250 each, are already sold out.
Korea and Gulf states already share broad economic interests. With a youth-minded campaign to capture hearts and minds, Seoul is hoping they’ll find more to share.
This piece is a part of Mezze, a monthly short article series spotlighting societal trends across the region. It originally appeared in the Middle East Program's monthly newsletter, Middle East Notes and Comment. For more information and to receive our mailings, please contact the Middle East Program.