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South Korea-UAE visit showcases alignment on arms, energy deals

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Arms, investment and energy deals were front and center during South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s state visit to the United Arab Emirates that concluded on Tuesday, as Seoul’s economic interests in the Gulf nation rapidly expand.

The four-day visit that ended saw a host of agreements and memoranda of understanding signed in Abu Dhabi with a delegation of over 100 Korean business leaders.

They included a $30 billion pledge from the UAE to invest in South Korean industries, almost double the Emirates’ $17.17 billion federal budget for 2023.

The details of the investment have not been revealed, but it will be directed at nuclear power, defense, hydrogen and solar energy industries that are led by sovereign wealth funds including the UAE’s Mubadala Investment Company, according to Seoul’s Finance Ministry.

South Korea’s Samsung, a subsidiary of which built the UAE’s landmark tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa, announced that Samsung Engineering was awarded an $80 million pre-construction services contract from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company for the Hail and Ghasha Gas Development project.

The event comes as South Korea and GCC economic relationships are shifting.

Sam Blatteis is the CEO of The MENA Catalysts, a regional government relations firm for high tech companies, saw the visit as indicative of South Korea’s growing economic clout.

“The GCC’s GDP was 3.7 times larger than South Korea’s in 1980 ($65.4 billion). Today they are on par, with the Gulf’s economies on par at $1.8 trillion currently,” Blatteis told Al-Monitor. 

South Korea is an energy-poor country and the world’s eighth biggest consumer of the resource, importing 92.8% of its energy and natural resources consumption, predominantly from the Middle East, according to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The energy-deprived state imports about 60% of its oil from the Middle East, and the need is only growing with economic constraints post the COVID-19 pandemic and amid the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war.

In a summit with his UAE counterpart Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Yoon said discussions focused on nuclear power plants, traditional and renewable energy, investment and military defense.

“The comparatively new conservative Yeol, with less than a year in office, aligns with Abu Dhabi’s defense priorities on multiple levels. He has a more hawkish approach to bolster US defense ties and join the UAE-India-Israel-US quad,” Blatteis said. 

He saw South Korea’s growing role as a UAE arms supplier as a product of politics and Abu Dhabi’s strategy in seeking out non-traditional security needs.

Around this time in 2022, the UAE faced a series of missile attacks from Houthi militants amid the Yemen war. One struck a fuel depot in the country’s capital and killed three people.

Yoon stressed the need for increased security cooperation in an address to his country’s Akh unit, a special military force based in Abu Dhabi, referring to the UAE as its “brother country” with similar goals and even adversaries.

The South Korean president in an address to his troops on the second day of his visit, singled out the Iranian threat.

“The UAE’s enemy ― the most threatening nation ― is Iran and our enemy is North Korea. We are in a very similar position to the UAE,” he said.

Yoon identified their parallel security concerns circulating around the nuclear ambitions of Iran to the region.

Despite the South Korean president’s statements, the UAE and Iran expressed efforts to improve regional relations last year around nuclear security issues. In 2019, the two countries resumed diplomatic relations after years of political tensions.

Although Yoon said that his visit was South Korea’s first state visit to the UAE since diplomatic relations were established in 1980, this month in 2022, former President Moon Jae-in visited the UAE and locked in a $3.5 billion missile artillery deal in addition to hosting a K-pop event in the Arab country.

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