From nuclear energy to K-pop, there's much that powers UAE-South Korea ties

With President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit this week, our 'blessed brother nations' are expected to grow even closer

K-pop boy band Super Junior perform at The Pointe in Dubai in 2021 / The National
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This year marks 43 years of diplomatic relations between the UAE and the Republic of Korea. The Emirates has long been a stable and appreciated supplier of the oil South Korea has needed for its industrial development. Likewise, South Korea has provided dedicated assistance to the UAE for the construction of its new state-of-the-art cities in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

In the history of Korea-UAE relations, the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant project that started in the winter of 2009 and the deployment in the UAE of the Akh Unit of elite South Korean Special Forces in January 2011 carry great significance.

Barakah was the first nuclear power plant that South Korea helped to install abroad. This project was a milestone, as the UAE became the first Arab country to possess a nuclear power plant. The plant’s first and second reactors have already begun commercial operations. Once construction of the third and fourth reactors is completed in 2023 and 2024, the plant will meet 25 per cent of the UAE’s total electricity demand. By that time, Barakah will have significantly contributed to driving the country’s policy to transition energy supply towards hydrogen and other new and renewable sources. A symbol of the robust military co-operation between the UAE and South Korea, the Akh Unit has helped both countries’ troops tirelessly build battle-ready combat capabilities and strong camaraderie.

It is worth reflecting on the meanings of the Arabic words “barakah” and “akh”: “blessing” and “brother”. These two words have long established themselves as bywords that symbolise the two countries’ special relationship. Literally, the UAE and South Korea are standing shoulder to shoulder in the international arena as “blessed brother nations”.

Although we are at the eastern and western edges of Asia, our two peoples’ emotional and cultural bonds transcend time and space

With the Barakah project and the Akh Unit serving as catalysts, our two countries have brought nuclear and military co-operation into full swing over the past decade. These two pillars of bilateral co-operation have been able to shore up remarkable progress in a wide range of areas, including infrastructure, science and technology, health care, space technology and culture.

For example, scientists from both countries pooled their wisdom to build the UAE’s first satellites – DubaiSat-1 and -2 – and researched the technology needed for growing rice in the desert. Top-tier doctors are dedicated to taking care of Emiratis’ health at places such as Sheikh Khalifa Speciality Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah.

Although the two countries are far apart geographically, at the eastern and western edges of Asia, our two peoples’ emotional and cultural bonds transcend time and space. Since the first K-pop concert was held in the UAE in 2011, almost every major K-pop band has visited this country. Last September, a variety of K-pop performances took place in Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena. Young Emiratis are such passionate fans that Blackpink opted to launch their New Year world tour route via Abu Dhabi.

And long before K-pop, K-dramas sparked a deep interest in South Korea among Emiratis. Winter Sonata and Dae Jang Geum aired on TV here in 2007. South Korean film festivals have become regular features organised by the Korean Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi since 2017, and South Korean film screenings are held monthly with great success.

At the King Sejong Institutes, which opened in 2016 in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the number of students and office workers who want to take Korean language classes is on the rise. In the fall of 2022, United Arab Emirates University students in the Arirang Club there were so inspired by the clarity and soulfulness of the great Korean poet Yoon Dong-ju that they translated and published an anthology of his poems in Arabic.

Clearly, the fact that the people of the UAE have embraced Hallyu – K-Wave – is reflective of the wide appeal of the creativity that Koreans have passed down for generations through songs, dance, dramas, films, food and novels. No country can become an influential nation through economic and military power alone. The vibrant cultural exchanges between our two countries will facilitate and nourish co-operation in numerous fields such as the economy and national defence.

For young South Koreans, the UAE is a country that harnessed its global financial power and abundance of imagination to achieve “the miracle in the desert”. Nearly every South Korean knows the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Qasr Al Watan, Burj Khalifa and the other landmarks of Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The UAE – a country that overcame the Covid-19 pandemic in an unparalleled manner – successfully hosted the Dubai 2020 Expo from October 2021 to March 2022, presenting a sustainable future for humanity and drawing the world’s attention.

The future belongs to those who hold on to their dreams and prepare accordingly. More than 10 years ago, our two countries’ leaders committed to constructing the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant and deploying the Akh Unit here, which have led to remarkable achievements in various areas. In the same vein, the common prosperity, stability and peace not only of the next decade but for years thereafter will be determined by what strategic vision and programmes our two countries choose to share right now.

From this perspective, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit from January 14-17 brings new expectations and hope. Our two countries have, up to this point, been considered brotherly nations with a special strategic partnership, but now, given the significance of this visit, we see an opportunity to take off for a greater future.

The Arabic word rafiq means “companion”. There is an Arabic proverb: the best thing is something new, but the best friend is an old friend. I am confident that South Korea will become the UAE’s most reliable and lasting partner. Our two leaders share a very similar love for people and inclusivity. I hope that both leaders seize the opportunities provided by these meetings in the new year to usher in a bright future for the next decade and beyond.

Yoo Jeh Seung is the ambassador of the Republic of Korea to the UAE

Published: January 11, 2023, 12:25 PM