ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol received a guard of honor Sunday during a trip to the United Arab Emirates as he hopes to expand his country’s military sales here.
Yoon’s visit comes as South Korea strikes billions of dollars worth of trade deals and sends special forces troops to defend the United Arab Emirates, an arrangement that drew criticism under his liberal predecessor. Now, however, it looks like the conservative leader wants to bolster those military ties even as tensions with neighboring Iran have already seen Tehran seize a South Korean tanker in 2021.
“I think the situation in the Middle East is changing very rapidly in terms of geopolitics,” said June Park, a member of the International Strategy Forum at Schmidt Futures. “So Korea wants to make sure that some of the strategic partnerships and components…with the UAE” remain strong.
Yoon arrived at Qasr Al Watan Palace in Abu Dhabi on Sunday. He was welcomed by Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who took office in May after serving as the country’s de facto ruler for years.
An honor guard made up of Emiratis in traditional dress greeted Yoon and his wife, Kim Keon Hee. They twirled Lee-Enfield pattern rifles alongside camel and mounted troops. Inside, a military band played the South Korean and Emirati national anthems.
After the ceremony, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency quoted Sheikh Mohammed as saying the UAE planned to invest $30 billion in South Korea. “We have decided to invest with confidence in the Republic of Korea which keeps its promises in all circumstances,” he said.
The report did not give details.
While energy-hungry South Korea depends on the Emirates for just under 10% of its crude oil supply, Seoul has struck a series of deals far beyond oil with the nation of seven emirates that closely bind the nation to Abu Dhabi. South Korea’s trade with the United Arab Emirates is worth billions of dollars worth of cars, equipment and other goods.
The significance of the trip for Seoul could be seen in South Korean business leaders attending a camel meat lunch at the palace. Among them are Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Euisun Chung, Samsung Electronics Executive Chairman Lee Jae-yong and SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won.
Prior to Yoon’s trip, officials described the visit as an attempt to solidify ties between the two countries.
“This visit will strengthen strategic cooperation with our brother country, the United Arab Emirates, in the four main cooperation sectors of nuclear energy, energy, investment and defense,” Kim Sung-han said. director of national security of the Yoon government.
On Saturday, Yonhap quoted an unnamed presidential official as also saying an arms deal was expected.
“The atmosphere is extremely conducive for security or military cooperation between South Korea and the UAE involving the arms industry,” the official said, according to Yonhap.
Already, South Korea struck a $3.5 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates in 2022 to sell M-SAM, an advanced air defense system designed to intercept missiles at altitudes below 40 kilometers ( 25 miles). Emirati officials are increasingly concerned about protecting their airspace after being targeted in long-range drone attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
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While US forces fired Patriot missiles for the first time in combat since the 2003 invasion of Iraq to defend Abu Dhabi during those attacks, the Emiratis have hedged their reliance on US military support ever since. America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
But South Korea’s biggest project remains the Barakah nuclear power plant, Seoul’s first attempt to build atomic reactors overseas. The $20 billion facility, which will eventually have four reactors, is in the western deserts of the United Arab Emirates, near the Saudi border, and will one day account for nearly a quarter of all the Emirates’ electricity needs. .
It is also key to the UAE’s plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, a commitment that takes on particular significance as it prepares to host the UN COP28 climate negotiations from of November in Dubai.
Yoon probably wants to assure the Emiratis that South Korea wants to be in the running for lucrative maintenance contracts after his predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, said Seoul wanted to move away from nuclear power.
“Energy policy took a 180 degree turn” after the election, said Park, the analyst. “So Korea is now for nuclear and I guess the Yoon administration wants to make sure with the Emiratis that there are no concerns about policy changes or anything like that.”
Then there are also the nuclear tensions with North Korea. Yoon, a former top prosecutor, became president in May on a promise to take a tougher line on Pyongyang. Until recent years, hundreds of North Korean laborers worked in the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere in the Arab Gulf states, providing cash flow to Pyongyang as it sought to evade mounting sanctions over its nuclear program. .
However, a crackdown has seen their numbers drop drastically as nations stop renewing visas. A recent UN expert report noted that high-end camera equipment purchased in the United Arab Emirates ended up in North Korea, while another mentioned that a North Korean national living in Dubai had obtained foreign currency through an online application by lying about his nationality.
The UN also said that as of 2021 it has information of North Korean diplomats in Iran flying on Dubai-based long-haul carrier Emirates and smuggling gold with them.