x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Etihad launches daily service to South Korea as ties deepen

Extra flights are part of a wider pattern of political and economic interconnectedness including nuclear power deal, tourism and education.

SEOUL // A water cannon and a gleaming white Airbus yesterday heralded the latest step forward in relations between the Emirates and South Korea, when the first flight to Seoul by the UAE's national airline, Etihad Airways, landed in bright sunshine.

Coming a year after a South Korean-led consortium secured the US$20 billion (Dh73.4bn) contract to build four nuclear power stations in Abu Dhabi, the daily service is part of a wider pattern of political and economic interconnectedness.

Etihad expects 60 per cent of the people flying to Abu Dhabi on the route will stop off in the Emirates, higher than average for the company's services, while it predicts freight holds will be kept full with steel, machinery and other goods from Seoul required for construction and other infrastructure projects.

The first flight took off from Abu Dhabi International Airport on Friday evening and landed at Seoul Incheon Airport yesterday morning in clear weather, with two water cannons framing the Airbus A330-300, which had the UAE and South Korean flags displayed from the cockpit as it taxied in.

Kim Bok-Hwan, the first secretary at the South Korean embassy in Abu Dhabi, described the service as a great chance to further deepen ties.

"It gives us another chance to concrete the relationship," he said. "The construction contracts between Korea and the UAE have rapidly increased since 2006 and we're trying to increase the cultural relationship, including tourism and education."

As a further indication of the growing ties between the two countries, in the past week the South Korean parliament approved the sending of 150 special forces troops to the Emirates to train UAE military personnel in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.

The UAE is the second-largest supplier of oil to South Korea, accounting for 14 per cent of its supplies, while construction companies from the Far East nation last year secured contracts worth more than Dh117.5bn. Bilateral trade increased 43 per cent last year.

Among the most prominent South Korean firms in the UAE is Samsung, which won a Dh5.5bn contract in April with the Abu Dhabi Gas Development Company and was the main contractor in the building of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, in Dubai.

There are more than 5,000 South Koreans living in the UAE and at least 120 South Korean companies active in the country in fields headed by IT and heavy industry.

Jeong-Min Seo, a professor of Middle East politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, said there were many cultural exchanges in addition to the political and economic ties.

"I expect in the future the relationship will strengthen," he said. "If you look at the whole Arab world, the UAE has the largest Korean community. It reflects the very close relationship between the two countries."

James Hogan, Etihad's chief executive, said planning for the Seoul route began before the Korea Electric Power Corporation secured the lead role in the UAE's nuclear energy programme and was a natural part of the seven-year-old airline's growth. Seoul is Etihad's 65th destination, and services to the 66th, Bangalore, start on January 1.

"We've built a strong Middle East network. We've built more frequency to Europe. In the US, we offer to Chicago. We've opened up to Japan. China has been a success. The next logical step was Korea," Mr Hogan said. "There are other carriers operating into the Gulf [from South Korea] so there's an awareness of the Gulf as a transfer point."

Mr Hogan said the airline hoped to "build Abu Dhabi as a destination for the Korean market", adding that attractions such as the recently opened Ferrari World theme park would appeal to South Korean travellers.

There are strong links between the leadership of the two nations, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, having made two visits to South Korea. During his most recent visit, in May, Sheikh Mohammed met the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, and the then prime minister, Chung Un-chan.

dbardsley@thenational.ae