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Korea pushes for trade pacts with Middle East amid geopolitical shift

The Korea Times - 12 June 2022

Korea pushes for trade pacts with Middle East amid geopolitical shift
By Kang Hyun-kyung

What is happening in the Middle East has reminded the rest of the world of the foreign policy dictum, "yesterday’s enemy can be your friend today."

Israel and the Arab countries, which had long deemed each other respective enemies due to their oppositional stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have begun to recognize each other as partners. Israel normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Sudan in 2020.

Recently, the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has also reportedly been in serious U.S.-brokered talks with Israel on economic ties and security arrangements, which experts see as a step toward the normalization of diplomatic relations.

The shift in U.S. foreign policy to focus on the Indo-Pacific region amid its rivalry with China is the key driver behind this unthinkable series of events in the region. Feeling pressure amid the U.S.’ decreased presence in the Middle East, Israel and some Arab countries share the need to end their decades of enmity and form a united front to counter the perceived growing threat from Iran.

This potentially groundbreaking change in the geopolitical environment of the Middle East has occurred as Korea is poised for active engagement with the region after President Yoon Suk-yeol took office.

"The Korean government will find it relatively easier to handle Middle Eastern affairs," Kwon Tae-kyun, the former Korean ambassador to the UAE, told The Korea Times.

Before tensions between Israel and some of the Arab countries started to thaw, roughly three different types of rivalries existed in the region: Iran and some of the Arabic countries were and still are in tension, Iran and Israel were pitted against each other, and lastly, most of the Arab countries and Israel were opposed to each other. This constellation of rivalries in the Middle East had required countries such as Korea, which depends on the region for oil imports as well as business opportunities in construction, to be careful and walk a fine line not to disturb its business partners.

"When foreign tourists arrived in Israel, the immigration authorities didn’t stamp their passports. Instead, travelers were given a slip of paper which the Israeli immigration authorities stamped," said Kwon. "They did so because if one’s passport were stamped by the Israeli immigration service, the person would never be allowed to enter Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Israel’s unique visa policy reflects how its ties with Arab countries have been in the past."

Kwon said that, nowadays, the two sides have less of a reason to see their counterparts as their enemies. "Arab countries have become practical and paid much more attention to diversifying their industries, rather than historical feuds, and they know they will benefit if they cooperate with Israel," he said.

From neglect to active engagement

The Middle East was far from a policy priority for the previous Moon Jae-in government. President Moon had attempted to build peace on the Korean Peninsula during his presidency, by courting North Korea and China, but his efforts didn’t bear tangible fruit.

"It’s fair to say that the Moon government was not interested in the Middle East at all," Jang Ji-hyang, a research fellow specialized in comparative politics of the Middle East at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

The Moon government’s "neglect" of the Middle East stands in stark contrast to what occurred during the conservative Lee Myung-bak government (2008-2013). South Korea’s export of its first nuclear reactors to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December 2009, became a diplomatic milestone in South Korea-UAE relations.

During his presidency, Lee visited the UAE’s capital four times, making Abu Dhabi the third-most visited foreign city by a South Korean president, following Washington and Beijing.

The Middle East has been regaining attention after President Yoon took office on May 10. Yoon has revealed his interest in the region with his warm welcoming of officials from the region.

During a meeting with Israeli Ambassador to Korea Akiva Tor, March 24, weeks after he was elected in the March 9 presidential election, Yoon said that the Korea-Israel free trade agreement, clinched in August 2019, would be ratified in the National Assembly as soon as possible, noting that there was bipartisan support for the ratification of the deal. The Israeli envoy handed over his president’s invitation to President Yoon to make a state visit to Israel. Yoon responded positively to the offer, saying he would try to find time to visit the country.

If his visit to Israel is realized, Yoon will be the first South Korean president to visit Israel.

Yoon also expressed his eagerness to work closely with the UAE to develop further bilateral ties. He welcomed the UAE delegation led by Khaldoon Al Mubarak on his inauguration day. During a meeting, Yoon said he would like to meet UAE then-Crown Prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The UAE leader rose to the presidency after his brother, then-President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, passed away May 13. On May 15, Yoon then sent a delegation to carry condolences and for a high-level visit to the UAE.

Yoon also revealed his interest in seeing progress in talks for a Korea-GCC free trade agreement. During a meeting with GCC ambassadors to Korea, he expressed hope that talks for the Korea-GCC free trade agreement would proceed smoothly, and that the deal might be clinched as soon as possible. Negotiations for the Korea-GCC FTA have resumed recently, 12 years after they were suspended in 2010 due to difficulties on the GCC side over policy coordination.

A trade deal like no other

If clinched, Kim Su-wan, a professor of Arabic interpretation and translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said the Korea-GCC trade deal would help both sides, as the economies of the two were complementary.

"There’s no doubt that the trade deal would benefit Korea," she said.

Kim noted that the GCC countries have a weak manufacturing sector and import most of their goods and services from abroad. "We import oil from the region and they buy our goods and services. Europe is one of the largest exporters to the GCC countries, so if the trade deal goes through, I think South Korean companies will be able to gain and increase their market share in the region," she said.

Unlike other FTAs, Kim went on to say that the Korea-GCC trade pact will benefit people in more sectors and industries.

"Farmers, for example, oppose free trade pacts with other countries because they are expected to lose out once those pacts go into effect. This has been the case when Korea pushed for free trade deals with the United States and Europe. But there will be no worries about a possible negative fallout on farmers even if the Korea-GCC trade pact is signed, because those countries import agricultural products, too," she said.

"It’s positive that negotiations for the Korea-GCC trade pact have been resumed at a time when those countries are striving to diversify their economies. More business opportunities in many different sectors and industries, including healthcare, defense and content, will be possible."

Kwon said that the GCC is not a huge market, compared to other countries and regions, such as the EU and the United States, with which South Korea has already signed free trade agreements. "But it will surely help Korean exporters if the deal is signed," he said.

Jang said that strengthening Korea-Middle East cooperation is of mutual interest as the region is also interested in upgrading ties with East Asia.

"Saudi Arabia, for example, has begun to look East over the past decade and they want to strengthen ties with countries like South Korea," she said.

In late February, Jang had an opportunity to give a lecture online at a seminar hosted by a renowned Saudi think tank. "After my lecture, I took questions from the Saudi panelists during the Q&A session. One of the think tank experts asked me about South Korea’s presidential election and which candidate would be elected," she said.

"It was the first time I received questions like those from a Saudi expert. Before that, there were no Saudis who were interested in Korean politics or presidential elections whatsoever. It’s a piece of evidence showing that people in the GCC are also interested in Korea and want to have a presence here."

 source: The Korea Times