Korean expertise has helped build bridges and skyscrapers in the Middle East

Over the past half century, the Middle East has been central to Korea’s rapid economic development – and Korean expertise in fields such as transportation, construction and technology is helping the Middle East accelerate towards a future beyond oil.

The relationship has deep historical roots. On becoming President in 1961, Park Chung-hee established diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. Today, Saudi Arabia is Korea’s fourth largest trading partner, while Korea is Saudi Arabia’s fifth largest.

In 1975, Korean expertise helped the United Arab Emirates (UAE) build a bridge across the narrow crossing from Abu Dhabi island. Thirty years later, a Korean firm was part of the team behind Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

Korean firms continue to play an important role in the Middle East. A Korean consortium is building the UAE’s first nuclear power stations at a cost of USD20 billion

Korean firms continue to play an important role in the Middle East. A Korean consortium is building the UAE’s first nuclear power stations at a cost of USD20 billion, advancing the UAE’s goal of becoming the first Arab nation to harness atomic energy on a commercial scale.

Following in the footsteps of her father Park Chung-hee, President Park Geun-hye visited the Middle East in March 2015. It was her second visit since taking office. She was accompanied by Korea’s largest ever business delegation, with more than 100 representatives from public and private firms.

On the nine-day trip, which included visits to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar, 44 deals worth more than USD800 million were signed and commitments made in a number of fields, including exploring clean renewable energy futures, such as solar power.

With Qatar set to spend an estimated USD200 billion in the years leading up to hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022, Korean infrastructure expertise will be vital. Its experience is also relevant: in 1988 Korea hosted the Olympics and in 2002 it co-hosted the World Cup with Japan.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, has also signed a partnership agreement with Korea’s largest steelmaker, including a strategic alliance across industries such as construction and car manufacturing. Saudi Arabia has some of the largest, and cheapest, aluminium production facilities in the world, and is considering developing a car industry. This is in line with the country’s commitment to diversifying its oil-based economy.

For many in the Middle East, Korea’s successful transformation into Asia’s fourth largest economy is inspiring. The links between the two continue to grow. Today, Dubai’s flag carrier Emirates, one of the three Gulf airlines, operates twice-daily flights to Seoul. A weekly shipping service runs between the ports of the UAE and the container terminal of Busan in Korea.

As countries in the Middle East and North Africa pursue their long-term ambition of developing advanced economies, partnerships with Korean businesses are likely to extend to new industrial technologies and techniques.

Arab merchants first exchanged Persian porcelain and pearls for Korean gold and jade almost 1,500 years ago. The relationship continues to offer significant potential today.

A version of this article appeared in the Financial Times blog beyondbrics on 27 March 2015.