The UAE and South Korea go back more than 40 years
Much has been written about the increasing role of China in the Middle East. The UAE has been at the forefront of developing closer ties with the world’s second-largest economy. But another north-east Asian state has also quietly been developing more strategic ties to the UAE: South Korea.
On Friday, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, visited South Korea, becoming the first senior diplomat to have a face-to-face meeting with the South Korean foreign minister since the coronavirus pandemic. The visit is a further reflection of the fact that the Emirati-South Korean relationship has been one of the most successful diplomatic developments over recent years.
Long one of the primary customers for the UAE’s oil exports, over the past decade Abu Dhabi and Seoul have also been broadening their relationship into various other areas.
South Korea is the developer of the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant in the UAE, the first in the region, that is expected to go live later this year. The plant is a key plank of the UAE’s energy security strategy and carbon emissions targets and has led to hundreds of South Korean employees living in the UAE.
The relationship goes beyond the energy sector, though, with South Korean products, from cars to electrical goods, being exported to the UAE. According to World Bank data, South Korea is the UAE’s fifth-largest trading partner from the Asia-Pacific region, behind much larger economies such as China, India and Japan.
The two countries also launched a cultural dialogue in January, marking 40 years of their relationship. Although temporarily set back by the coronavirus pandemic, the programme entailed delegations visiting book fairs and Arab film festivals in Seoul.
The number of Emirati tourists to South Korea has jumped by nearly 100 per cent over five years
The anniversary was also marked by the vibrant display of the South Korean flag on the Adnoc building in mid-June – a visual symbol only granted to a few countries, which this year included the EU on Europe Day, the Chinese flag to demonstrate solidarity with the city of Wuhan amid the pandemic, and the Swiss flag following the display of the Emirati flag on the Matterhorn mountain.
The dialogue followed the opening of the Korean Cultural Centre in Abu Dhabi in 2016, the first such centre in the Middle East. Such cross-cultural exchange is fuelled by the growing person-to-person contacts between the two populations.
The UAE is now home to about half of all South Korean expats in the Gulf, with about 13,000 making the country their home, according to the consulate general. By 2018, some 180,000 South Koreans were visiting or transiting the UAE as tourists, an increase of almost 30 per cent over the previous year.
The number of Emirati tourists to South Korea has jumped by nearly 100 per cent over five years, with the country’s Minister of Culture Park Yang-woo highlighting Korean dramas and K-pop music as being behind an increase in interest among Emirati residents in South Korea.
A growing economic and cultural relationship is also bolstered by an additional element: a small presence of South Korean military personnel in the UAE. Since 2011, South Korea has deployed a unit called the "Akh unit", after the Arabic work for brother, with the 17th rotation of these troops completed last month.
With such deep and broad ties, it is perhaps unsurprising that the South Korean government has prioritised its relationship with the UAE. President Moon Jae-in visited the country in 2018 and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, reciprocated the gesture with a trip to South Korea last year. In fact, the UAE remains the only Gulf country to be visited by Mr Moon during his tenure as President. He would have been hosted a second time in early 2020 had it not been for the Covid-19 outbreak.
It was during Mr Moon’s visit in 2018 that the two countries agreed to elevate their friendship to a "special strategic relationship", with the UAE still the only Middle Eastern state to hold this status. Mr Moon also appointed his former chief of staff, Im Jong-seok, to be special envoy to the UAE in 2019. Only one other Middle Eastern country – Iraq – has a special envoy from South Korea.
Over the past decade, therefore, South Korea and the UAE have built a multi-layered and close relationship with engagement across a variety of sectors. Seoul has prioritised its relations with the UAE, developing more profound ties than with any other country in the region. With Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to the peninsula this week, the particular importance of the ties between these two nations has once again been highlighted.
Christian Le Miere is founder of the strategic consultancy, Arcipel and Associates. He was a senior adviser to an entity in Abu Dhabi and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in London
Published: July 14, 2020 01:00 PM