This essay is part of a MAP series that aims to shed light on Korea-Middle East relations — their historical and cultural underpinnings, their energy-based and other economic aspects, and the geopolitical and other factors that have facilitated and constrained their development. See more ...

A little over five years ago, South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction[1] teamed up with Combined Group Contracting of Kuwait to lead the design and construction of the soon-to-completed Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah Causeway that will span Kuwait Bay, linking Shuwaikh Port with the Doha motorway. This massive infrastructure project, which is intended to put Kuwait on the global investment map, should also be viewed as part of a broad effort by Korean firms — supported by three successive administrations — to enhance their position in a fiercely competitive regional market at a time when the domestic economy is sputtering.

Twin Pillars of Korea-Gulf Economic Relations: Energy and Construction

Traditionally, South Korea’s economic relations with the Gulf countries[2] have centered on the energy and construction sectors.

1. Oil and Gas in the Korean Economy: The Role of Gulf Suppliers

The Republic of South Korea is home to some of the largest and most advanced oil refineries in the world and is one of Asia’s largest petroleum product exporters.[3] However, the country lacks domestic energy reserves, and relies on imports for nearly all its fossil fuel consumption.[4] Gulf producers accounted for more than 82% of the country’s 2017 crude oil imports.[5] [See Figure 1.] In recent years, Qatar and Iran have been South Korea’s leading suppliers of condensate (ultra-light crude oil), which serves as a feedstock for the country’s petrochemical industry.[6] However, South Korean refiners and petrochemical producers suspended shipments of Iranian crude and condensate last July [7] and subsequently obtained a 180-day U.S. sanctions waiver that will expire in May 2019.[8]

Figure 1. South Korea’s Crude Oil Imports by Source in 2017

Source: Adapted from U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), Country Analysis Brief: South Korea, July 16, 2018.


South Korea is the third-largest importer of liquified natural gas (LNG) in the world after Japan and China. Just over two-fifths of the country’s LNG imports in 2017 originated from Gulf producers, with Qatar accounting for 31% and Oman 11% of Korea’s requirements.[9] Though reportedly determined to diversify its LNG portfolio,[10] Korea’s robust supply relationship with Qatar is fortified by Kogas’ standing agreement with Rasgas (until 2024-2026) and by the fact that most of Qatar’s LNG carriers are built by South Korean shipyards.[11] [See Figure 2.]

Figure 2. South Korea’s LNG Imports by Source in 2017

Source: Adapted from U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), Country Analysis Brief: South Korea, July 16, 2018.

Note: Others include Algeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Norway, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and re-exports.

South Korea’s dependence on energy imports is likely to grow in the coming years. For one thing, the country’s petrochemical capacity will require increased volumes of condensate whether to serve as a raw feedstock or to produce naphtha for refining. For another, under President Moon’s energy policy reforms, South Korea has embarked on a drive to replace nuclear power and coal-fired thermal power plants with increased natural gas usage (and renewables), which will in turn necessitate a larger intake of liquified natural gas (LNG) sourced from abroad.[12] It is difficult to conceive of circumstances where the Gulf will cease to be a major source of LNG and condensate for South Korea and other Asian end-users.


2. South Korean Construction Companies and the Gulf Market

South Korean construction firms gained a foothold in the Middle East (mainly in the Gulf) during the early 1970s. The development of South Korea’s economy and the rise of its business conglomerates (chaebols) propelled a search for foreign markets and overseas projects that dovetailed with oil-producing nations’ ambitious publicly funded infrastructure projects.[13] Korean companies — supported by generous government loans and tax deductions — won numerous contracts to build housing units, roads, and port and power facilities.[14] The Middle East emerged as a major destination of expatriate workers and a valuable source of foreign currency for South Korea, helping accelerate the country’s economic development and industrialization.

By the mid-1980s, building on a successful project track record in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE),[15] Korean firms were a major force in the Gulf construction market.[16] Capitalizing on their low fees, flexibility and willingness to take on risky, fixed-price projects, Korean companies’ involvement in the region progressed beyond labor-intensive civil engineering and construction projects. In 2004 Samsung Corporation was awarded the main contract to build Dubai's landmark Burj Khalifa tower. Two years later, Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) broke into the lucrative energy services and construction sector with an engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contract to enhance production at Abu Dhabi’s Umm Shaif oilfield.[17]

Gulf Economic Diversification and Korean Economic Revitalization

Over the past decade, three successive Korean administrations have sought, with varying degrees of creativity, sustained commitment and success to harness economic cooperation with Middle Eastern countries to the task of reinvigorating the domestic economy through expanding the range of economic interaction beyond the traditional energy and construction sectors — this at a time when economic diversification has been high on the agendas of the Gulf Arab countries as well as Iran.

When Lee Myung-bak, who championed an “export-led economic growth model,” assumed the presidency in February 2008, it was perhaps not surprising that the erstwhile Hyundai executive with personal experience of the region would seek to capitalize on the “second Middle East boom.”[18] Under Lee’s stewardship (2008-2013), Korean firms won bids to build power and water facilities, distillation units, refinery tank farms, and high-profile property development projects in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[19]

Between 2009-2013, individual Korean contractors or consortia in which Korean companies participated were awarded seven of the 10 biggest EPC energy sector contracts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) market.[20] In 2009, at the height of this flurry of activity, a South Korean consortium led by Korea Electric Power Corporation (KEPCO) secured a landmark deal to build and operate four nuclear reactors at Barakh in the Al Dhafra Region of Abu Dhabi. Overall, Korean companies managed to weather the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the region in 2011, undertaking a slew of new projects in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Gulf.[21]

Though lacking the firsthand experience in the Middle East of her predecessor, President Park Geun-hye (2013-2017) nonetheless made a strong effort to tap into Gulf markets and thereby help pull the Korean economy out of its extended slump. Speaking at a trade promotion meeting in March 2015, she identified the region as a possible “answer to our prayer for economic revitalization.”[22] Korean SMEs won $55.66 million in export contracts as a result of meetings arranged during her visit that month to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar.[23] This period was also notable for efforts aimed at expanding business relations to the renewable energy, medical services and information technology sectors — part of the Park administration’s broader aim of fostering a new “creative economy.”[24]

The implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran in January 2016 paved the way for Korea firms such as Daelim and Hyundai Heavy Industries to garner hundreds of millions of dollars in new export orders.[25] Accompanied by a business delegation of over 230 executives, President Park made a three-day state visit to Iran in May 2016, which yielded agreements to undertake 30 joint economic projects totaling more than $37.1 billion.[26] And with the lifting of sanctions, South Korean oil imports from Iran surged. During this period, Korean companies were awarded contracts to build and upgrade energy infrastructure, construct residential housing and other facilities in Iraq as well.[27]

Since taking office, President Moon Jae-in has advocated investing in next-generation technologies and supporting SMEs and start-ups as the means to unlock the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Moon’s visit in March 2018 to the UAE, following an initial stop in Vietnam, was his first overseas trip as president. Eager to support local firms’ efforts to win contracts in the region in the development of smart cities, airports, and intelligent transport systems (ITS),[28] Moon and his team also sought to promote enhanced cooperation and inward investment in artificial intelligence, semi-conductors, space development, and information and communications technology (ICT).[29]


During the Moon visit, the UAE-Korea “strategic relationship” was elevated to a “special strategic partnership.”[30] In terms of the economic dimension of the bilateral relationship, this upgrade was as important for what it symbolized as for the immediate concrete outcomes it produced: Korean officials and powerful economic actors alike have come to view the Emirates both as a market and as a gateway or model from which to extend their reach within and beyond the region.[31]

The Moon administration has waged a parallel campaign to build out economic cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), spearheaded by the Saudi-Korean Vision 2030 Committee, which is organized into working groups focused on five key sectors: energy and manufacturing, smart infrastructure and digitization, capacity-building, health care and life sciences, SMEs and investment.[32] State-run utility Korea Electric Power Company (KEPCO), determined to expand its overseas presence, stepped up marketing efforts in Saudi Arabia, and has been shortlisted to bid on the Kingdom’s first nuclear project.[33]

Challenges and Risks Abound

In recent years, South Korea has deployed new “soft power”[34] and security-related tools[35] to protect and promote its economic interests in the Gulf region. Nevertheless, challenges and risks abound.

First, although over the past decade South Korea has managed to maintain a positive trade balance with the rest of the world, its yawning trade deficit with the Gulf region has not narrowed. [See Figure 3.] The fact that South Korean exports to the Gulf have not increased appreciably is one reason for this persistent imbalance. But the main reason is South Korea’s continued heavy reliance on oil sourced from the Gulf — a feature of the relationship that the practice of supply diversification can ameliorate but not fundamentally change.

Figure 3. South Korea’s Trade with the Gulf Region (2009-2018)

Source: Korea Customs Service,


Second, South Korea’s energy-dependent relationship with the Gulf carries with it a relatively high degree of risk exposure. In conducting business in the region, South Korean firms have had to grapple with fluctuating oil prices as well as with regional conflict and instability. For the past three years, EPC orders from the Gulf have fallen sharply due primarily to lower oil prices and political uncertainties.[36] The reinstatement of U.S. sanctions against Iran has led to Korean companies’ cancellation or suspension of work on lucrative projects there[37] and a significant drop in non-oil commodities bilateral trade.[38] Korean refiners have had to scramble to secure alternative oil supplies,[39] snapping up shipments of U.S. Eagle Ford, Australian Wheatstone, and Kazakh CPC Blend condensate to make up for the shortfall.[40] However, completely replacing Iranian condensate on a long-term basis with U.S. and Australian substitutes would require costly retrofitting of Korean facilities.[41] Meanwhile, the uncertain duration of the new sanctions regime, coupled with some confusion as to what is permissible under the waiver Seoul obtained from the Trump administration has added to Korea’s predicament.[42]


Third, lagging domestic economic reform could undercut South Korea’s efforts to further diversify economic cooperation with the Gulf countries. Chaebols continue to dominate the Korean economy and exert powerful influence in its politics. Thus far, President Moon has been unable to enact the structural reforms that would curb the power of these corporate behemoths and help unleash SME entrepreneurialism. The result is that state-supported chaebols remain the powerful and privileged vanguard of Korea’s economic penetration of the Gulf — retaining advantages that, while redounding to their own and the country’s benefit, nonetheless could come at the cost of stifling more innovative services-oriented economic activities propelled by SMEs.

Fourth, in recent years Korean construction companies have had to contend with the limitations of their standard business model and navigate in an increasingly crowded field of rivals for Gulf business. As domestic demand weakened a decade ago, Korean contractors flocked to the Middle East where their ambitious bidding enabled them to undercut their competitors but ultimately yielded narrower profit margins than expected for some and substantial losses for others.[43] In the ensuing years, South Korean companies have found themselves competing not just with Western incumbents but also with new, agile Chinese and Indian contenders. The upshot is that Korea’s competitive edge in sectors such as shipbuilding, electronics, and automobiles appears to be eroding.[44]

Fifth, it is difficult to gauge exactly how effective Korea’s recent “sales diplomacy” in the Gulf has been. The widely reported “successful” undertakings of President Moon and his predecessor produced dozens of memoranda of understanding, though it is unclear how many of these have translated into concrete outcomes. Furthermore, the current policy direction of the Moon administration could prove counterproductive, notably the push to phase out the very technology at home that it is seeking to export, which could damage its credibility, disrupt the supply chains and experienced workforce and thus undermine efforts to expand its nuclear portfolio in the Middle East and beyond.

Finally, it is important to mention that President Moon’s energy and enthusiasm is focused primarily on the prospects for inter-Korean economic cooperation, and not on the Gulf. His conciliatory approach to dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DPRK) reflects his belief that lasting peace on the peninsula will provide “new growth engines” for the economy.[45]


South Korea’s energy-dependent and export-driven economy binds the country to the Gulf. Many Korean companies — having built a large presence and compiled a strong track record of success in the Gulf — are seeking to retain and expand their business activities in the region and to exploit its potential as a gateway to more distant markets. The Moon administration has reaffirmed its commitment to promote Korean companies’ efforts to sustain and generate new business in the Gulf and wider Middle East.

Nevertheless, entering 2019, South Korea is bracing for a further economic slowdown — facing multiple downside risks, including rising U.S. protectionism, decelerating Chinese growth, sluggish corporate investment, and weak consumer spending.[46] As Hyundai Engineering & Construction and its local partner work to complete construction of the Sheikh Jaber Causeway across the Kuwait Bay, South Korean officials are drawing up a detailed blueprint for reconnecting road and rail links across the divided Korean peninsula. Both projects evoke bright new possibilities for improving South Korea’s economic prospects. However, the symbolism and aspirations associated with the projects tend to mask the high level of risk exposure and uncertainty that South Korea faces, whether in managing relations with the DPRK or in steadying, much less expanding its economic engagement with the Gulf.   


[1] Another South Korean firm, GS Engineering & Construction, won the contract for the smaller Doha link.

[2] For purposes of this article, “Gulf countries” refers to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states plus Iran and Iraq.

[3] “2018 Worldwide Refining Survey,” Oil & Gas Journal, December 4, 2017.

[4] U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA), South Korea: Country Analysis Brief (July 2018): 5,….

[5] Ibid.

[6] “South Korea stopped importing condensate from Iran before receiving sanctions waivers,” Hellenic Shipping News, December 14, 2018,; and Charles Lee and Noralzina Jumaat, “South Korea data: Iranian crude imports drop 46% on year in Jul, Kazakhstan crude intake soars,” Platts, August 24, 2018,….

[7] Jane Chung and Osamu Tsukimori, “South Korea suspends Iranian oil loading in July for first time since 2012: sources,” Reuters, July 5, 2018,; and Jane Chung and Seng Li Peng, “South Korea's Hanwha Total buys U.S., Australian condensate to replace Iran oil,” Reuters, August 23, 2018,….

[8] Jane Chung and Osamu Tsukimori, “South Korea suspends Iranian oil loading in July for first time since 2012: sources,” Reuters, July 5, 2018,; and Heesu Lee, “South Korea Grants U.S. Wish for Zero Oil Imports From Iran,” Bloomberg, September 10, 2018,….

[9] BP Statistical Review of World Energy (June 2018),….

[10] See Keun Wook Paik, “South Korea’s Energy Policy Change and the Implications for its LNG Imports,” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies (OIES) Paper No. NG 132 (June 2018),….

[11] “Qatar and South Korea: A growing partnership,”, August 15, 2018,….

[12] Tim Daiss, “South Korea Doubles Down On Gas And Renewables,”, August 25, 2018,; and Karen Thomas, “Kogas plans South Korea’s fifth LNG-import terminal,” LNG World Shipping, September 29, 2017,,kogas-plans-south-koreas-fif….

[13] Alon Levkowitz, “The Republic of Korea and the Middle East: Economics, Diplomacy, and Security,” Korea Economic Institute Academic Papers 5, 6 (2010): 2-3,….

[14] See Ui-Sup Shim, “South Korean Workers and the Middle East Construction Boom in the 1970s,” Journal of Contemporary Korean Studies 2, 1 (June 2015): 37-56; Sooyong Kim, “The Korean Construction Industry as an Exporter of Services,” The World Bank Economic Review 2, 2 (May 1988), pp. 225-238; and Alon Levkowitz, “The Republic of Korea and the Middle East: Economics, Diplomacy, and Security,” KEI Academic Paper Series, 5/6 (2010).

[15] Perry Williams, “South Korean firms taking work in the Middle East,” Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), June 26, 2009; and John Lie, Han Unbound: The Political Economy of South Korea (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998) 88, 92.

[16] Ed James, “Korean Dominance Grows: South Korean Contractors Are Cementing Their Hold over Middle East Construction,” Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), January 11, 2008. See also Mohammed Turki Al-Sudairi, “South Korea-GCC Economic Relations: An Overview,” Gulf Research Center (GRC) Papers (November 2012): 12-15.

[17] “Adma-Opco lets single-order contract for offshore platform,” Oil & Gas Journal, October 2, 2006,….

[18] See Shirzad Azad, Koreans in the Persian Gulf: Policies and International Relations (New York: Routledge, 2015) 136-143.

[19] Tamsin Carlisle, “South Korean companies strike it rich in UAE,” The National, March 2, 2010,….

[20] “Oil, gas, petrochemicals and power projects awarded in the GCC in the 12 months to November 2013 worth $43b,” Gulf News, November 10, 2013,….

[21] “S. Korean builders become top foreign players in Saudi Arabia,” Korea Herald, March 8, 2012; “Hyundai Engineering wins US$1.5 bln Saudi alumina refinery order,” Yonhap News Agency, March 12, 2012,; and “Daewoo E&C wins US$709 mln order in Iraq’s Akkas gas field,” Reuters, August 29, 2013,; ‘‘GCC Accounts for 60% of all Korean EPC Contracts Abroad Amounting to $43.3bn, Says Made in Korea Organizer,’’ Middle East Economic Digest (MEED), December 12, 2011; Choi Jong-hoon, “S. Korean firms get $5.4 billion in overseas construction projects,” Hankyoreh, August 1, 2015,; and Lee Hyun-jeong, “Hanwha E&C collects $560m from Iraq for city project,” Korea Herald, January 22, 2017,

[23] “KOTRA Discusses How to Parlay President Park’s Middle East Tour into Nation’s 2nd Middle East Boom,” Newsworld Korea, April 6, 2015,

[24] “Korea, Kuwait Agree to Diversify Business Relations,” Korea Herald, March 2, 2015,

[25] “Daelim Industrial wins $ 1.9 bn deal in Iran,” Pulse News, December 29, 2016,; and In-Soo Nam, “Hyundai Heavy Gets $700 Million Deal to Build 10 Ships for Iran Shipping Lines,” The Wall Street Journal, December 10, 2016.

[26] Koichi Kato, “South Korea, Iran plan joint projects worth $37.1bn,” Nikkei Asian Weekly, May 4, 2018,….

[27] See for example, “South Korean firms nab refinery project in Iraq,” Oil and Gas, February 4, 2014,; Yamurai Zendera, “South Korean company wins $2.12bn infrastructure deal in Iraq,”, April 7, 2015,….

[28] Jack Ball, “South Korea backs construction firms for Middle East contracts,” Construction, October 15, 2018,….

[29] Sarah Diaa, “Now is the time to invest in South Korea, Moon Jae-in says,” Gulf News, March 27, 2018,….

[30] Isaac John, “Korea sees new era in UAE ties,” Khaleej Times, August 20, 2018,

[31] Alkesh Sharma, “South Korea to use UAE as gateway into Mena region,” The National, December 13, 2018,….

[32] See Saudi Korea Vision 2030 Committee, See also Shoshana Kedem, “Saudi Arabia and South Korea announce new business alliance,”, November 2, 2017,; and Alkesh Sharma, “Samsung Gulf eyes double-digit sales growth in second half,” The National, August 16, 2018,….

[33] Rashid Hassan, “Saudi Arabia, South Korea expand mutual cooperation,” Arab News, May 4, 2018,; and “South Korea’s KEPCO shortlisted to bid for Saudi nuclear project,” Reuters, July 1, 2018,….

[34] Raynald C. Rivera, “A cultural bridge between Qatar and South Korea,” The Peninsula, February 3, 2016; Donya Saberi, “The Rise of South Korea’s Soft Power in the Middle East,” The Diplomat, March 14, 2018,….

[35] For a condensed treatment of the ROK’s security-related activities in the MENA until 2013, see Alon Levkowitz, “South Korea’s Middle East Policy,” Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Middle East Security and Policy Studies No. 106 (2013): 10-13, Regarding the Korean military training mission to the UAE, see Yi Whan-Woo, “S. Korea, UAE signed 6 secret deals: lawmaker,” Korea Times, January 8, 2018; and June Park and Ali Ahmad, “Risky Business: South Korea's Secret Military Deal With UAE,” The Diplomat, March 1, 2018, With respect to defense sales, specifically to Iraq, see Mohammed Ebraheem. “Iraq receives new batch of KAI T-50 jets from South Korea,” Iraqi News, December 8, 2018,….

[36] Jung Min-hee, “Korean Builders Suffering Big Drop in Orders from Middle East,” Business Korea, April 26, 2018,

[37] For example, Daelim Industrial cancelled a $2 billion contract to upgrade and expand the Isfahan refinery; and SK Engineering and Construction halted all work on a $1.88bn contract to upgrade the Tabriz refinery. See “Sinopec persists with Iran refinery upgrade,”, September 20, 2018,….

[38] “Iran, S. Korea non-oil commodities trade post sharp decline,” MENAFN, September 18, 2018,….

[39] Kim Kwang-tae, “S. Korean refiners diversify imports of condensate over U.S. sanctions on Iran,” Yonhap News Agency, August 8, 2018,; and Serene Cheong, Sharon Cho, and Ann Koh, “U.S. Sanctions on Iranian Oil Stir Up a Corner of the Market,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2018,….

[40] Jane Chung and Seng Li Peng, “South Korea’s Hanwha Total buys U.S., Australian condensate to replace Iran oil,” Reuters, August 23, 2018,; Jane Chung and Olga Yagova, “South Korea Turns To Kazakh CPC Oil As US Sanctions On Iran Loom,” Reuters, July 3, 2018, reported in Rigzone,; and Henning Gloystein and Collin Eaton, “U.S. oil exports to Japan, South Korea soar as refiners reap steep discounts,” Reuters, September 11, 2018,….

[41] Florence Tan and Jane Chung, “As Iran supply dries up, South Korea petrochemical firms find new, costly oil sources,” Reuters, December 3, 2018,; Kim Kwang-tae, “S. Korean refiners diversify imports of condensate over U.S. sanctions on Iran,” Yonhap News Agency, August 8, 2018,; and Serene Cheong, Sharon Cho, and Ann Koh, “U.S. Sanctions on Iranian Oil Stir Up a Corner of the Market,” Bloomberg, June 20, 2018,….

[42] Irina Slav, “Japan, South Korea To Resume Iranian Oil Shipments In January,”, November 20, 2018,….

[43] Simon Mundy, “S Korean builders’ Mideast success hurts,” The Financial Times, January 5, 2014,

[44] “Why South Korea is growing wary of China,” The Economist, February 1, 2018,….

[45] Republic of Korea, Ministry of Reunification, Moon Jae-In’s Policy on the Korean Peninsula,….

[46] Hayoung Choi and Choonsik Yoo, “South Korea cuts growth outlook, but sticks to equitable economy goal,” Reuters, December 16, 2018,; Hooyeon Kim, “South Korea's New Finance Minister Casts Gloomy View of Economy,” Bloomberg, November 10, 2018,….

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