Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) paid a brief, but extremely lucrative, visit to South Korea on November 16, signing about $75 billion worth of investment agreements in less than 24 hours.
MBS traveled from the G20 Summit in Indonesia to attend the Korea-Saudi Investment Forum in Seoul, where he met with conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and the heads of major South Korean corporations such as Samsung and Hyundai.
MBS, in turn, brought representatives of the gargantuan Saudi national oil company Aramco. Among the largest of the 26 agreements signed on November 16 was a $7 billion deal for Aramco to extend its Shaheen petrochemical refinery in South Korea, which is managed by a local affiliate called S-Oil. South Korean energy minister Lee Chang-yang described the Shaheen project as the largest single foreign investment in South Korea.
“It is a representative success story leading the low carbon and high value-added oil industry by utilizing the complementary energy and industrial structure of Korea and Saudi Arabia,” Lee told the Korea-Saudi Investment Forum.
The Investment Forum included joint projects that will be located on Saudi soil, as well as Saudi-funded projects in South Korea. For example, Korean firms signed a memorandum of understanding with the Saudi Public Investment Fund to build a $6.5 billion hydrogen and ammonia plant in Saudi Arabia.
The Financial Times noted Saudi investment minister Khalid al-Falih visited Seoul earlier in November as a sort of warm-up act for the MBS. During his visit, the minister urged Korean start-ups to look at Saudi Arabia as a launching “platform” for entering global markets and stressed the popularity of Korean culture and fashion with Saudi citizens.
Another project of great interest to the Saudis is NEOM, the Kingdom’s $500 billion project to build a futuristic mega-city along the Red Sea coast that will include flying taxis, robot servants, and a hundred-mile-long mirrored skyscraper known as “The Line” thrusting from the desert into the sea. When The Line is completed, it will supposedly house nine million people in a single climate-sensitive building:
The design for the 500m tall parallel structures, known collectively as The Line, megacity Neom. The futuristic megacity in Saudi Arabia will feature two massive, mirror-encased skyscrapers that extend over 170 kilometres of desert, ultimately housing 9 million people… pic.twitter.com/P5eEJZq1HC
— Tansu YEĞEN (@TansuYegen) September 19, 2022
NEOM was dismissed as far-fetched by many observers when the project was first announced in 2016 as part of the Crown Prince’s “Saudi Vision 2030” plan for restructuring the Saudi economy and society, but the Saudis have demonstrated a willingness to sink huge amounts of money into the project. They are allegedly laying the foundation for that 200-mile sideways skyscraper, for example.
The Saudis are especially determined to lure top international talent to the nascent “Oz of the Middle East” with attractive salary packages and investment deals. On the other hand, the handful of humble tribesmen who refused to surrender their property to the NEOM project were sentenced to death in October.
Hyundai signed a memorandum of understanding during MBS’ visit to work on a railroad project of undisclosed value in the NEOM economic zone. Lee promised “Korea’s state-of-the-art architecture” would feature prominently in the Saudi mega-city.
MBS spoke with Yoon about the NEOM project during his visit to Seoul, and Yoon told reporters he hopes for more South Korean participation in the city’s construction, along with cooperation on hydrogen power, tourism, cultural exchanges, and defense.
MBS said after the meeting he hoped to “drastically bolster” bilateral cooperation in those areas to “realize the Saudi Vision 2030 based on the mutual trust built in this process.”
“I hope to bolster our cooperation with Korea to realize the Saudi Vision 2030 based on the mutual trust built in this process,” the Saudi crown prince said.
South Korean observers said NEOM could prove to be a windfall for Korean companies, although they cautioned the project remains highly speculative and the NEOM memos signed during MBS’ visit were more symbolic than substantial.
“Some people say the idea of the NEOM city project is too utopian and doubt whether it can be really established. But it’s one of the projects that Prince (Mohammed) is pushing hard so that he will try to have (the NEOM project) running to some extent,” Hankuk University Middle Eastern researcher Paik Seung-hoon told the Associated Press.
Paik described the NEOM agreements signed at the Korea-Saudi Investment Forum as the “first shoveling” on the immense project.
“Most importantly, the leaders of the two countries met and agreed to push forward with something. And this shouldn’t be the end,” he said.
On the other hand, Hyundai Research Institute director Joo Won said there were many things that could go wrong and scuttle the NEOM project.
“It’s a matter of financial resources. Saudi Arabia needs money to build such a city. During the period of high oil prices like these days, they can afford it. But oil prices would go down one day and the project could stop,” Joo pointed out.
Seoul National University research fellow Hwang Yui-hyun compared the South Korean government ignoring Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in the pursuit of lucrative business deals to President Joe Biden abandoning his campaign promises to make MBS a “pariah” in his desperation to secure more Saudi oil.
“U.S. President Joe Biden directed his harsh criticism on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia during his election campaign. However, with the rise in oil prices after his term began, Biden flew to Saudi Arabia to meet bin Salman,” Hwang pointed out, referring to Biden’s humiliating – and spectacularly unsuccessful – visit to Riyadh last summer.
The enduring image of the summit was Biden giving a jovial fist bump to the Saudi prince he formerly denounced as a murderer; after Biden left, the Saudi-led OPEC cartel reduced oil production instead of increasing it, as Biden wanted.
“South Korea is no different,” Hwang said cynically. “What matters for Seoul in its foreign policy is its security and economic benefits.”
Middle East Eye on Sunday quoted Yemeni refugees living in South Korea who were displeased by the lack of attention paid to allegations of deliberate attacks on civilian targets by the Saudi-led coalition. Saudi Arabia and its allies began intervening in the brutal Yemeni civil war in 2015 after the Iran-backed Houthi insurgency overthrew the internationally-recognized elected government. The war has largely been a brutal multi-sided stalemate for the past seven years, with allegations of atrocities and war crimes against all parties.
“This murderer, who the South Korean government invited, is plundering resources in Yemen and destroying the country. Saudi forces kill children, innocent women, and the elderly. They bomb weddings and school buses,” an angry Yemeni refugee in South Korea told Middle East Eye.
During his 2020 election campaign, President Biden was also sternly critical of MBS for his alleged role in the killing of political activist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. This was another criticism swallowed during Biden’s quest for more Saudi oil. Last week, the Biden Justice Department recommended granting MBS immunity from a lawsuit brought by Khashoggi’s widow because the crown prince is “sitting head of government for a foreign state.”
Far from Biden turning MBS into a global “pariah” as he promised during the campaign, Biden is now watching quietly as the Saudis build a stronger economic and political relationship with longtime U.S. ally South Korea, and thanks to Biden’s energy policies, the Saudi-led OPEC is arguably stronger than ever.