South Korean president visits UAE, showcasing deep ties

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The Associated PressSouth Korean President Moon Jae-in arrives to Al Wasl Dome to attend an official ceremony at Dubai Expo 2020, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On a trip to the United Arab Emirates, the president of South Korea on Sunday reportedly reached a preliminary multibillion-dollar deal to sell Seoul’s surface-to-air missiles to Abu Dhabi and pledged deeper cooperation with the Gulf Arab federation.

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After South Korean President Moon Jae-in met Emirati Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai, the countries signed a memorandum of understanding for the UAE’s purchase of a South Korean mid-range missile defense system valued at some $3.5 billion, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reported.

There were no further details on the deal announced during the visit nor immediate comment from the UAE. But during Dubai’s weeklong aviation trade show last November, the Emirati Ministry of Defense tweeted it planned to acquire South Korea’s M-SAM, an advanced air defense system designed to intercept missiles at altitudes below 40 kilometers (25 miles), saying it would “constitute a qualitative addition to the capabilities of the national air defense.”

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Sheikh Mohammed posted photos of the meeting and said the UAE seeks “a comprehensive strategic economic partnership” with South Korea, one of the world’s top crude importers and financiers of energy projects.

The nations have strengthened their defense cooperation over the past decade, with South Korean elite special forces even traveling to the UAE to train Emirati troops in an unprecedented years-long deployment for the Asian country.

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Meanwhile, the UAE has hosted hundreds of North Korean laborers in past years who provide a key revenue stream for Pyongyang. But under pressure to enforce U.S.-led sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear program, Abu Dhabi has recently moved to choke off the network and stopped renewing North Korean work visas.

From Dubai’s Expo 2020, where South Korea boasts a sprawling pavilion to showcase the country’s high-tech and cultural achievements, President Moon praised the world’s fair and pledged the countries will “transcend generations and national borders to build back together and leap forward together.”

President Moon landed in the regional financial hub of Dubai on Saturday, and was greeted by UAE Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei. The oil and gas-dependent South Korea imports fossil fuels from the Persian Gulf, including from oil-rich Abu Dhabi, to power its energy-intensive economy, dominated by manufacturing industries from cars to petrochemicals.

The UAE represents 8% of Seoul’s oil imports, according to 2019 data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Not only does Seoul buy Emirati oil, but South Korean firms have participated in the development of Emirati oil fields to boost the Asian country’s self sufficiency and, significantly, have built the UAE’s Barakah nuclear power plant — the first on the Arabian Peninsula.

The group of four reactors at Barakah in Abu Dhabi’s far western desert, which marked the Korea Electric Power Corporation’s first international deal, are gradually coming online. As the UAE seeks to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels and diversify away from oil, it plans to draw a quarter of its electricity from the $20 billion reactors.

During the South Korean trade minister’s trip to the UAE late last year, the countries also began negotiations on a new bilateral trade deal, including agreements to develop sources of clean power. On Monday, Moon met with an Emirati business delegation about clean-burning hydrogen fuel, his press office said.

The Abu Dhabi National Oil Company has sharpened its focus on hydrogen in recent months, building facilities to produce large volumes of the fuel and shipping so-called blue ammonia to Japan.

“Carbon neutrality is obviously a difficult process, but if the two nations promote the hydrogen industry through solidarity and cooperation, they will have new opportunities,” Yonhap news agency quoted Moon as telling a business forum in Dubai, adding that Seoul has helped the UAE develop a hydrogen-powered public transport system.

A different South Korean export takes center stage later Sunday at Expo, as star K-pop bands including Psy, of the hit song “Gangnam Style,” will perform catchy songs and dynamic dance moves to frenetic fans that braved rare desert rain to line up since early morning.

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