South Korean president in Saudi Arabia, meets crown prince

Saudi South Korea

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — South Korea's leader arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, where he was greeted in Riyadh by the kingdom's crown prince and an honor guard marching band.

It was the second stop on a Mideast tour by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife, who were greeted on the tarmac by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. All were masked and President Moon did not shake hands with the prince, in line with coronavirus social distancing practices.

It is the latest visit by a head of state to Saudi Arabia as a growing number of world leaders resume bilateral meetings and trips abroad following COVID-19 vaccine rollouts in many parts of the world.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman has largely taken over day-to-day rule of Saudi Arabia from his father, King Salman. It was unclear whether President Moon would also meet King Salman, who has only made limited public appearances since the outbreak of the virus globally in March 2020.

The crown prince's Vision 2030 reform agenda, which lays out a blueprint for diversifying the kingdom's economy away from reliance on oil and modernizing its society, is a driving force for many of Saudi Arabia's current economic initiatives. The prince is seeking investments for his mega projects, including in the construction, artificial intelligence, education and energy sectors.

South Korea underwent its own economic diversification in the 1970s and is a global powerhouse in technology and manufacturing.

Relations between South Korea and Saudi Arabia date back to the early 1960s, and have been underpinned since by South Korea's heavy reliance on oil and gas imports to power its energy-intensive economy, dominated by manufacturing industries from cars to petrochemicals.

Saudi Arabia is South Korea’s biggest economic partner in the Middle East. The kingdom also is Seoul's top trading partner, though over 90% of South Korea’s imports from Saudi Arabia are concentrated in oil, according to a 2018 report published by the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies on bilateral relations.

The report noted that South Korean exports to the kingdom are also not varied, consisting mostly of automobiles and construction equipment. Nearly 90% of South Korea’s investments in Saudi Arabia are in the construction sector.

Saudi media reported President Moon will meet with Yasir al-Rumayyan, chairman of Aramco, the state-controlled Saudi oil company, who also heads Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Investment ministers from both countries will also meet during the Riyadh visit.

King Salman visited several Asian countries in 2017, but South Korea was notably absent from his tour. Analysts say this was due to South Korea's internal political turmoil then and the ouster and arrest of the country's president at the time.

President Moon's stop in Saudi Arabia came after his visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he reportedly reached a preliminary $3.5 billion deal to sell Seoul’s surface-to-air missiles to Abu Dhabi and pledged deeper cooperation with the Arab country.

The South Korean leader is scheduled to visit Egypt next.

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.