[TRADING PLACES] Korea finds surprising unity with the Emirates

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[TRADING PLACES] Korea finds surprising unity with the Emirates


From right, Emirati Ambassador to Korea Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi, Emirati Counselor and Deputy Head of Mission Rashed Saeed AlShamsi, Humaid Al-Hammadi, president of the Emirati-Korean Friendship Society and a Seoul resident for years, and construction engineer Cho Chong-kook, who has been to the United Arab Emirates over 50 times during his career in construction in the Middle East, at the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on Dec. 8. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Korea and the United Arab Emirates have a unique and strategic relationship, emphasized the Emirati Ambassador to Korea Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi over dishes of Khuzi-style roasted lamb with spiced rice, tabbouleh and fattoush shared with Korean and Emirati guests at his residence.

Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi: We have a really strategic relationship with Korea as we are the only country in the Middle East to have this kind of agreement with the Korean government — the Korean investment into the Barakah nuclear power plant in the UAE, the first nuclear power plant in the country.

The top envoy was involved in this process.

Al Nuaimi: Before I came here as an ambassador, I visited Korea many times. The first time was in 2001, when I visited Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) as a director of the independent water and power projects of the Privatization Committee for the Water and Electricity Sector in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.


Al Nuaimi: I invited Kepco to come to the UAE to find out about possible investment opportunities. At the time the UAE had so many investors from Japan, the Americas, Europe, Malaysia and Singapore but not many from Korea. But I knew Kepco was a good Korean company. So it was in 2009 that Korea and the UAE signed the nuclear plant agreement. At the time, in addition to Kepco, a French and an American company were competing for the project. Korea at the time did not have experience in internationally investing in a nuclear power plant project, but the UAE chose Korea because it saw the Korean technology. This then opened the door for Kepco in the field, as it now has a project in the United Kingdom and is looking into another project in France, the hub of nuclear power, and possibly in Saudi Arabia.

The bilateral relations are boosted by rising medical tourism from the UAE to Korea as well.

Al Nuaimi: The ministries of health in both the UAE and the Republic of Korea have a concrete agreement for sending Emirati patients to some of the best hospitals in Korea. Many Emerati patients have visited Korea for medical tourism to get treatment in different specialties. Most Emirati patients have very positive feedback regarding their experience with Korean hospitals. In this regard, I would like to express my deepest appreciation and gratitude to Korean hospitals for all the effort they have made in order to provide exquisite service to Arab and Emerati patients, such as provision of halal food, prayer rooms and Arabic interpreting and translation services. This shows Korea’s sincere respect and understanding toward the Arab and Islamic culture.

Having spent one year in Seoul, the top envoy said he found quite a number of striking similarities between Emirati and Korean cultures.


Left: Cho Chong-kook in Dubai in December 2017 during a trip he made to the United Arab Emirates. Cho has traveled to Dubai and Abu Dhabi more than 50 times in his life working abroad in the Middle East as a construction engineer. Right: From left, Humaid Al-Hammadi, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Emirati Ambassador Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi at the awards ceremony for the Seoul city government’s honorary citizenship in November 2017 at Seoul City Hall. Al-Hammadi was one of the awardees this year. [CHO CHONG-KOOK, HUMAID AL-HAMMADI]

Al Nuaimi: Despite the geographical distance between the UAE and the Republic of Korea, it always amazes me how people can be the same in ways of reacting and dealing with life. For example, in South Korea, respecting elders is very obvious and can be noticed easily in the streets, public transportations, restaurants, parks or any other place around Korea. Also the language used with elders is different and bowing when greeting elder people and also using both hands with old people is a great sign of respect as well.

Al Nuaimi: In my country, the United Arab Emirates, old people are considered wise and the source of goodness, so their words are well heard and they always have the final word when big decisions are made. As a sign of respect, we greet old people with a kiss on their foreheads.

A jewel of Asia

Humaid Al-Hammadi, an Emirati fluent in Korean who first discovered the country in 2002, intends to write books on Korean Admiral Yi Sun-shin and poet Yun Dong-ju in Arabic.

Humaid Al-Hammadi: I’m working on a book on Admiral Yi. I think he is a great hero — he has changed history in Asia and he should be introduced more to readers outside of Korea. I also plan to write about Yun Dong-ju. The poet contributed to the liberation of Korea because the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. Many Emiratis are famous for poetry as well, including Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of UAE and the ruler of Dubai.

Al-Hammadi was not always this excited about Korea. But a trip in 2002 changed all of that.

Al-Hammadi: Before coming to Korea for the first time in 2002, I thought Korea was a smaller China. The only way to know about it was through soccer, because every time the UAE played in the World Cup qualification matches, Korea was in our group. But when I came I found it is actually a hidden treasure, a hidden jewel that I need to introduce to others. I would consider myself an ambassador for Korean culture.

So Al-Hammadi created the Emirati-Korean Friendship Society in 2012, a UAE-based association of Emiratis and Koreans interested in learning about each other’s cultures. Through events and regular meet-ups with people of both countries, Al-Hammadi draws some parallels between the two cultures.

Al-Hammadi: Did you know that both countries experienced rapid changes in the past 40 years? The UAE was established on Dec. 2, 1971, and the country is not just a desert anymore, it became one of the international hubs in a short time. The same thing happened in Korea: In the 1960s and ’70s, the Korean annual GDP was less than $100 per capita, one of the lowest in the world at that time, as it was suffering from the aftermath of a terrifying war. However, the Korean people took up the challenge and in less than four decades they turned their country into a major international player.

Al Nuaimi: So there is actually an interesting trend in both countries, where the older generation today has seen both worlds, before and after the rapid development of the country.

Al-Hammadi: The list of similarities goes on — even the countries’ sizes are similar, and the traditional attire that Korean men used to wear, which was white and earned the Korean people the name baek-ui-minjok [a people of white clothes], is similar to how the Emirati men are distinguished by their white clothes, called kandora or dishdasha.

Al Nuaimi: Another similarity that I can think about is the importance of family culture in both the Korean society and the Emirati society. Unlike many countries, young people here still live with their parents until they get married which is the same in the UAE. In the UAE, there are two big feasts which are Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, when the big family that includes grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins gather in the same place to share meals and nice talk.

Al-Hammadi: And if you think about it, Emiratis take off their shoes when they enter their homes and they also like to enjoy their meals while sitting on the floor, just like in Korea.

If there is one jarring difference in the two cultures, it is the Korean affinity for pork and drinking.

Al-Hammadi: Koreans most love the two things we don’t have — pork and alcohol. Korean cuisine includes pork a lot of the time, which I find challenging. One time, I went to Busan. I love kimchi jjigae [kimchi stew], so I ordered one at a restaurant there. I told the owner, “One kimchi jjigae dwejigogi bbaegoyo [without pork].” And I told him three times.

Al-Hammadi: So he brought out the stew and halfway through eating I found pork inside the stew! So when the gentleman realized that he made a mistake, he said sorry and he brought me another dish to make it up. I asked, “What is it?” and he goes, “It’s sausage.”

Al Nuaimi: It happened to me quite a few times. One time I ordered a chicken quesadilla and told the owner to not put pork in it, but it came with bacon inside. I think sometimes people don’t realize just by the word pork, you have to tell them explicitly, no sausage, ham, pepperoni, salami.

Friends in strangers

Cho Chong-kook has been traveling back and forth from Seoul to Dubai and Abu Dhabi since 1988, as he worked as an engineer on construction projects in the UAE, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Cho Chong-kook: I’ve landed in Dubai more than 50 times through these trips. So really, home for me is not necessarily in Seoul. I land at the airport in Dubai and I feel I’m home.

It was particularly a sense of jeong, a Korean word to describe the feeling of affection, love and passion felt between people, that Cho felt in Dubai that made him feel at home.

Cho: Some Koreans may think that Dubai is a completely strange land for them. But if you walk the streets in Dubai, sometimes you will find that the locals will come up to you and offer you tea. This you must take. By accepting tea from a stranger, you are inviting conversations and friendship. When they tear some of the bread they have with their bare hands and offer you some, you are to take it as a sign of friendship. When I was invited to locals’ homes for dinners, I remember the host would prepare the food with his or her bare hands, and offer it this way. I was reminded of how my parents would do the same for me when I was little. It is a very peculiar feeling, of finding a home away from home, but that’s what Dubai was and is for me.

And many others like Cho end up sticking around in the country for the rest of their lives.

Cho: I had a Dutch friend who used to work in Dubai but moved back and forth between the UAE and the Netherlands for work and holidays. But recently he told me he decided to choose one place to live for the rest of his life with his family, and he chose to move everyone to Dubai! As a foreigner, it’s not hard to feel at home in the UAE, because, well, there are people of more than 200 nationalities there.

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Emirati Ambassador

Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi

Ambassador Abdulla Saif Al Nuaimi, his wife and five children arrived in Seoul in December 2016. The top envoy was previously the president of the Canadian-Emirati Businessmen Council, managing director of the Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Authority, director of independent water and power projects of the Privatization Committee for the Water and Electricity Sector in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi and a senior analyst at the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Though Seoul was his first posting as an ambassador, he said, “If I had a choice on where I want to live as an ambassador in Asia, of course I would choose Korea.”

Humaid Al-Hammadi

The president of Emirati-Korean Friendship Society, which he established in 2012, Humaid Al-Hammadi said he gradually became fond of Korea after his first visit in 2002. After attending Korean classes here, he studied the language on his own for years, reaching fluency today. Al-Hammadi wrote a book about Korea in Arabic and he is planning on publishing at least two more books, one on Admiral Yi Sun-shin and another on poet Yun Dong-ju.

Cho Chong-kook

Managing Director of Mammoet Korea, a construction company that specializes in heavy lifting and transport, Cho Chong-kook first landed in the United Arab Emirates in 1988 for a construction project. He has since been back to the country more than 50 times, as he continued to work on projects in the area, including in Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Cho says some of his best friends were those he made in the UAE, including a Dutch and an Indian friend, as well as an Emirati he spends time with during his frequent visits.
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