This is the sixth in a series of blogs looking at South Korea’s foreign relations in the run up to the next Korean administration taking office on May 10. The series also includes blogs on relations with North Korea, the United States, China, Japan, Russia, the European Union, ASEAN, Africa, and Latin America.
By Juho Choi
The active relationship between South Korea and the Middle East Area is relatively young. Since South Korea established its government after the Korean War, most exchanges with Middle East nations had been based on oil and overseas construction. While there is significant geographic distance and cultural differences, the relationship has evolved significantly in recent years.
Korea’s active economic ties with the Middle East go back many years as Korean companies have often looked to the region for construction projects. However, ties have grown closer in the 21st century. As oil prices soared, many oil-supplying nations needed additional oil-related facilities and social infrastructure.
Out of the top 10 countries where Korea has construction work, 6 are in the Middle East including the top 4 countries. Under the two former presidents (Lee Myung Bak and Park Geun Hye), ties with Middle East nations were significantly expanded. Both presidents toured the Middle East and signed hundreds of memorandum of understanding (MOU) in various fields. In fact, some of them led to contracts such as plant building and operation contracts, including ones in the UAE for a $20 billion deal to build four nuclear power plants and $49.4 billion contract to operate the plants over 60 years.
Lifting sanctions on Iran also helped Korea’s economy advance and brought hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. Daelim Industrial landed a $2 billion deal with the Esfahan Oil Refining Company and Hyundai Heavy Industries clinched a $700 million deal to build 10 ships for Iran’s state-owned shipping companies. Also, Turkey, which is called a brother nation in Korea, signed a $3 billion contract with SK E&C to construct the world’s longest suspension bridge.
In addition to economic ties, cultural exchanges have dramatically increased. According to Korea Customs statistics, Korean confectionery exports to UAE and Saudi Arabia have risen 60.8 percent and 141.8 percent, respectively, compared with 2011. The popularity of Hallyu (K-Wave) is also remarkable. Starting with the success of ‘Dae Jang Geum’ which recorded a 90 percent rating in Iran, many Korean TV shows have aired successfully in the Middle East. The growing popularity of K-pop is also considerable. The first music and culture convention ‘KCON Abu Dhabi 2016’ was a huge success with 8,000 fans and many idol groups have had concerts in the Middle East. State level effort also has continued to share cultural value in depth. Two Korean Cultural Center are running in the Egypt and Abu Dhabi and different events has been offered by Korean embassies around the Middle East.
This K-Wave trend has led to a boost in tourism. According to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the number of tourists from the Middle East has soared over the past few years. In 2016, nearly 200,000 tourists from the Middle East visited South Korea, double the number of tourists in 2011.
Beyond cultural exchange, South Korea has also contributed to keeping peace in the Middle East. The Cheong-hae naval unit has been deployed for international maritime security and to counter the spread of terrorism. They also carried out an operation called ‘Dawn of Gulf of Aden’ which was successfully rescued 21 crew members of a Korean ship hijacked by Somali pirates. In addition to the Cheong-hae unit, the Dong-Myung unit has been engaged in rebuilding in Lebanon and the Ake unit has helped to train soldiers of the Persian Gulf state in UAE.
However, several obstacles such as fluctuating oil prices, unstable regional security, cultural, and religious difference still remain. In particular, armed conflict and unstable political situations in the Middle East need worldwide cooperation and focus to move forward. Considering Korea’s growing interest in the regions, it’s possible to play an important role by cooperating with Middle East nations in depth. According to Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP), many oil-supplying nations are promoting economic diversification for falling oil prices, it will lead to increased investment in non-oil based industries such as medical care, tourism, finance and others. South Korea has mainly enhanced its business tie with Middle East in construction and resource related industries. South Korea is also endeavoring to follow this diversification especially medical care. However, Korea should diversify investment in accordance with this phenomenon and prepare the post-oil era with the Middle East to greet the real ‘Second Middle East Boom’
Juho Choi is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a student of the Dong-A University in Busan. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Gordon’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.