UAE and South Korea Forge New Ties

by Giorgio Cafiero

Having achieved rapid economic growth in the past several decades, both the United Arab Emirates and South Korea have much in common with respect to their unique histories of development. Although located on opposite shores of the Asian continent, the two nations have contributed significantly to the other’s astonishing economic growth. As the UAE’s fourth largest export partner, South Korea’s thirst for foreign energy resources plays an important role in the UAE’s economic pivot to the Far East.

The history of South Korea’s economic relationship with the UAE mirrors its history of trade with all the Gulf Arab nations. During the 1960s, the UAE (then the “Trucial States”) and South Korea were virtual strangers. Yet during the oil boom of the 1970s, bilateral trade increased from $3 million to $265 million. By 2013, it had reached $22 billion.

When the Gulf Arab economies took off during the 1970s, Korean construction firms built major infrastructure projects in the Gulf. Following the oil boom, many South Korean companies pursued opportunities elsewhere. But the nation has recently returned to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to drive its economic development. In 2011, South Korean construction companies pushed through projects in the Gulf worth $43 billion. Samsung constructed Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest skyscraper) and Abu Dhabi’s $1.6 billion Cleveland Clinic (one of the Middle East’s landmark hospitals).

Although the flow of energy resources in one direction and construction projects and electronic appliances in the other has shaped UAE-South Korea relations for decades, the two nations have recently started to develop economic ties beyond the hydrocarbons-for-construction swap. Last March, South Korean President Park Geun-hye traveled to the UAE. She and Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan signed six memoranda of understanding in the fields of culture, agriculture, nuclear energy, and halal food production.

Between 2009 and 2014, the number of South Korean expatriates in Dubai increased from 1,000 to 5,000, and now roughly 14,000 South Koreans call the UAE their home. The South Korean professional community has grown rapidly over the last five years because of the nuclear energy field. In December 2009, Seoul’s nuclear ambitions reached a watershed point when a South Korean consortium (comprised of Kepco, Hyundai Engineering and Construction, Samsung and Doosan Heavy Industries) secured a $20.4 billion contract to develop four nuclear power plants in the UAE, besting competition from France, Japan, and the U.S.

Cooperation in the nuclear field takes place alongside a growing military relationship. Roughly 150 South Korean troops are based in Al Ain, where they train UAE Special Forces in anti-terrorism, anti-hijacking, and counter-insurgency actions. South Korean forces are also said to play a role in securing the four nuclear power plants. Last March, Park became the first South Korean commander-in-chief to visit a warship deployed overseas when she met with hundreds of South Korean troops on a destroyer anchored at Zayed Port. Some these troops are from an elite unit, which, since 2009 has contributed to international efforts to secure the Gulf of Aden and protect freighters from Somali pirates, an important issue for Seoul. Five hundred South Korean vessels transit these waters each year.

South Korea has great potential to play an increasingly important role in Abu Dhabi’s oil-dependent economy. As the emirate pursues new partnerships beyond the Western energy firms that have been active in the UAE for decades, Abu Dhabi has turned to South Korea, along with Japan, for onshore oil concessions. Earlier this year, Abu Dhabi awarded South Korea’s GS Energy a three percent stake for four decades in a venture in the emirate’s highest producing onshore oil field.

Bilateral cooperation has expanded into the health and tourism sectors. In 2012, the Dubai Health Authority awarded Bobath Memorial Hospital in Seoul the contract to run the medical and therapeutic services for the Dubai Rehabilitation Centre. In addition, the management and operation of the Sheikh Khalifa Specialist Hospital has been delegated to Seoul National University Hospital. In recent years, hundreds of Emiratis have travelled to South Korea for medical treatment, along with thousands who have visited for business and leisure. In 2012, roughly 12,000 Korean tourists visited the UAE. Last week, South Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and his UAE counterpart, Mohammed Mir Abdullah Al Raisi, met in Dubai where the two officials discussed improving bilateral cooperation in numerous sectors, including health. Mohammed praised the work of South Korean hospitals in the emirates.

Cultural ties are also growing. On Park’s trip to Abu Dhabi earlier this year, the two governments agreed to establish a Korean cultural center in the UAE. Seven months later, the National Theatre in Abu Dhabi held the three-day Korea Festival, which showcased Korean cuisine and performing arts. In 2010, the King Sejong Institute for the study of Korean language and culture opened with Seoul’s support at Zayed University. According to John Feffer, director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Korean music, soap operas, and film, which have enjoyed popularity in Egypt and Iran for many years, have recently gained new fans in the Gulf Arab nations. Emirati university students have established clubs such as the Arirang Club at UAE University to enjoy the South Korean pop culture that has made inroads among youth segments worldwide.The UAE Youth Ambassadors program has also sent young Emiratis to South Korea.

The UAE and South Korea, each socially conservative in its own way, have much in common beyond sharing a modern history of extremely impressive economic growth. The two countries are both US military allies and beacons of relative security in regions beset by geopolitical instability and volatility. Both nations have achieved their development by looking beyond their borders and integrating in the global economy. Looking ahead, there is every reason to expect the two UAE and South Korea’s increasingly cooperative relationship to expand into new domains and to strengthen in the process.

Photo: Burj Khalifa

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.