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South Korean officials are competing for Middle East influence

South Korea competes with Chinese and Japanese counterparts for Middle East influence
5 min read
21 August, 2019
South Korea is making inroads in the Persian Gulf that could undercut growing Chinese involvement there, writes Austin Bodetti.
South Korea purchases more goods from Kuwait and Qatar than does any other country [Getty]
South Korean diplomats have no shortage of challenges to consider, among them South Korea's expanding feud with Japan, a simmering rivalry with China, and the always-looming possibility of a war with North Korea, the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom.

Still, South Korea has found time to lead a quiet campaign to expand its economic ties to the energy superpowers of the Persian Gulf, which meet much of the East Asian country's demand for natural gas and petroleum.

In the Middle East and the Far East alike, South Korean officials are competing for influence with their Chinese and Japanese counterparts.

South Korea purchases more goods from Kuwait and Qatar than does any other country. 

The East Asian country has also managed to become Bahrain and Iran's third-largest customer as well as Oman and Saudi Arabia's fourth largest – though South Korea stopped importing Iranian fossil fuels in the wake of American economic sanctions imposed on Iran over the past year. 
In the Middle East and the Far East alike, South Korean officials are competing for influence with their Chinese and Japanese counterparts

While China and Japan too rely on the Gulf for much of their energy consumption, South Korea is working to make its presence felt.

"South Korea is willing to reach out to any region that has a good potential for cooperation," said Minju Lee, a Qatari-educated South Korean expert on the Gulf.

"If the economic partnership grows, South Korea needs to be concerned with the Gulf beyond its own economy."

To complement the growth of economic ties, South Korea has attempted to engage in diplomacy with the Gulf's regional powers.

Last year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the United Arab Emirates. His predecessor, Park Geun-hye, made a trip to Iran in 2016. South Korean soldiers have also been training the Emirati special forces since 2011 in a controversial, secret arrangement.

"Korea has tremendous economic and national interests in Gulf, such as importing oil and gas," said Dr Sung Il Kwang, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Konkuk University.

"Furthermore, many Korean companies would like to win a contract to build nuclear power and other plants there. However, because of the Shia–Sunni conflict in the Gulf and the US's sanctions on Iran, we must be very smart in how we do business with all the Gulf states."

Korea has tremendous economic and national interests in Gulf, such as importing oil and gas

Despite the expansion of South Korea's relationship with its economic allies in the Gulf, the East Asian country will have to go much further to outcompete China and Japan.

China has incorporated the Gulf into the Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese investment strategy for the Global South that includes support for the construction of infrastructure in Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE.

Meanwhile, Japan is trying to bill itself as an intermediary to facilitate diplomacy between Iran and the United States. For its part, North Korea cooperates with Iran on the development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons.

Even if South Korea will struggle to match China's economic prowess and Japan's diplomatic experience, officials in Seoul can draw on their country's technological expertise to strengthen ties with the Gulf. South Korea has been helping the UAE build a nuclear power plant since 2009.

"The Chinese are pouring a large amount of investment into diverse fields in the Gulf in an aggressive manner," said Sung.

"In response, Korea needs to focus on specific fields of industry – in which we are in a position of comparative advantage – and dominate these areas. In sum, we should run a 'selection and concentration strategy' in the Gulf. Otherwise, we will lose all the markets there."

China, Japan, and South Korea's mutual reliance on the petroleum industry in the Gulf will likely fuel a geopolitical rivalry between the East Asian world powers for years to come.

China's longtime status as the hegemon of the Far East has so far allowed it to dominate this competition, but leaders in Japan and South Korea have made clear that they plan to stake their claim to spheres of influence in the Middle East.

The more China, Japan, and South Korea vie for the favour of the Gulf's monarchies, the more officials in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, and the region's other first cities will continue to benefit.

In the short term, South Korea may have to resolve nearby disputes and international crises before it can dedicate greater diplomatic, economic, and technological resources to the Gulf.

Just this August, North Korea's state-owned media announced that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un oversaw another test of missiles capable of striking American military bases and other strategic targets in South Korea. In the face of nuclear warfare, the Gulf seems a secondary concern for many South Koreans.

"South Korea has a very limited geopolitical interest with regard to securing or diversifying its energy imports, which, rather, fits into the realm of its economic policy," Lee told The New Arab.

"South Korea could do more in the Gulf, but neither side has been the other's immediate focus. At the moment, South Korea is primarily concerned with North Korea and neighbouring world powers."

Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda. His research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.