ABU DHABI // The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, will break ground at the UAE's first nuclear power plant site today, marking a new milestone in relations between the two countries.
Mr Lee is on his third visit to the Emirates in relation to the nuclear project after negotiating and securing, in 2009 and 2010, contracts for the Barakah Nuclear Power Plant, in the Western Region.
The 32-year-old relationship between the UAE and South Korea has rapidly developed since a 2006 visit by then prime minster, Han Myeong-sook.
Talks then between prime minister Han and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, shared development experiences between the two countries and enhanced cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, IT and tourism.
Since then, UAE investments and exports to South Korea have grown from US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) to $14.75bn with oil making up the majority of the trade. Korean investments and exports in the UAE have grown from $25 million to $7.26bn last year. Two-way trade has risen more than 30 times in the past decade.
But further opportunities exist, officials believe. Exporting skills, as well as goods, was key, said Abdullah Al Saleh, the undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Trade.
"We think the future between South Korea and the UAE holds great opportunities, especially in the area of SMEs [small and medium enterprises], developing a knowledge-based economy and training and specialised industries like automakers," he said.
The UAE is keen to learn from the diverse nature of the South Korean economy as the country strives to create new industrial segments.
"Given Abu Dhabi's commitment to invest in engineering-driven sectors like microchip manufacturing and potentially related high-tech fields, South Korea can serve as a role model for the emirate given its leadership position in technology," wrote analysts in a Standard Chartered Bank report this year on growing links between the countries.
The UAE also wants to deepen the pool of its exports beyond oil. First it will need to create the kinds of capital goods South Korean companies have become famous for around the world.
But the UAE is keen to pursue more investment openings in South Korea, too. DP World helps run Pusan, one of South Korea's largest ports and the country's gateway to Pacific trade. First Gulf Bank has also opened a branch in Seoul.
While business increases, South Korea's UAE ambassador, Kwon Tae Kyun, said a strong and mutual understanding between the people of the two countries was also key to sustaining the existing strategic partnership.
"We must try to get to know and understand each other to ensure a truly lasting partnership. I promise you that the government of the Republic of Korea as well as the Korean Embassy in the UAE will make utmost efforts to support this meaningful endeavour," he said in a speech on Korean National Day in 2010.
The development of the relationship between the two countries expanded in to areas of education, defence and technology, according to Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research at the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
"The partnership between the two countries has been developed on trade, education and security ties, showing a shift of balance from East to West," he said.
South Korea also has a 158-strong special forces unit in Al Ain named "Akh", which means "brother" in Arabic. Since January last year the contingent has been training UAE troops in anti-terrorism and parachute infiltration as well as conducting joint drills.
Earlier this month the Korean National Assembly extended its deployment to the end of next year.
In addition to this cooperation, hundreds of Emirati nuclear scientists and students are being trained in South Korea.
"Building on these heightened bilateral relations, we are witnessing active exchanges between the two countries in numerous areas," Mr Kwon said.
"Students from the Institute of Advanced Technology received technical training on nuclear technology this year as part of a summer internship programme, and a master's degree programme in nuclear engineering has opened at Khalifa University of Science and Technology and Research.
"Zayed University has just started offering Korean classes to the public - and Etihad Airways launched a direct flight between Abu Dhabi and Seoul in December 2010."
The Standard Chartered report said that the UAE and South Korea exemplify the growth of Middle East-Asia trade and investment flows.
"The shifting balance of economic power from West to East is leading to the emergence of new trade and investment corridors between the Middle East and Asia.
"This is exemplified by the growing trade corridor between the UAE and South Korea, which is being driven by the unique strengths of both economies," said Jonathan Morris, Standard Chartered UAE's chief executive.
According to the Korean ministry of foreign affairs and trade the UAE has the largest South Korean population in the Arab world, with 5,665.