South Koreans in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

On 3rd March 1938, petroleum was discovered on the lands of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since then, Saudi controls the world’s second-largest gas reservoir and holds the top position in exporting oil to other nations. The trade of petroleum has made Saudi an essential partner to almost every independent country, including South Korea or the Republic of South Korea (ROK). Furthermore, as the only Middle East country of G20 nations, Saudi plays a pivotal role in the international political and economic scenario.

The influx of South Koreans to the gulf began in the 1970s as migrant laborers, where nearly 1.1 million Koreans arrived in gulf nations between 1975 to 1985. During that time, the middle east became the third most popular destination for Korean immigrants. However, in the present time, the number of migrants from the southern state of Korea is merely a few thousand.

History of ROK and Saudi Relations

In the 1960s, the Middle East was settling down after curbing hostile situations, and new nations were emerging in the region. During such a delicate period in history, South Korea established diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on October 16, 1962. Over time, the nation continued on its expansion spree to include many other gulf countries in its diplomatic ties. Currently, ROK enjoys peaceful diplomatic relations with 18 Middle Eastern nations, with seventeen Embassies and two Consulate Generals.

Although the real ties between Saudi Arabia and North Korea date back to the 7th and 8th century when Arab merchants came to the Korean Kingdom United Silla, their connection started the trades between the two states. Eventually, they moved to establish other relations where the people from both sides represented one another and wrote about each other’s culture. Even during the Korean war from 1950 to 1953, Saudi extended help to nascent South Korea in material assistance. After South Korea became an independent nation, they officially established ties with KSA in 1962.

In the initial years of its alliance with Saudi, South Korea set up the first embassy in 1973 in Jeddah, which later moved to Riyadh. In the coming next decades and more, South Korea emphasized establishing strategic and diplomatic ties with Saudi in response to the nation’s oil and infrastructure growth. In the 1970s and 1980s, the relation between ROK and Saudi was concentrated in the oil, infrastructure, and construction industry.

As both the nations continued signing documents to benefit mutually, migration from South Korea to Saudi peaked in 1982 and 1983, with over 1,22,000 South Koreans entering Saudi Arabia yearly, covering over 70 percent of Korean migration in the nation. However, the spike was short-lived; in 1985, the number of South Korean immigrants fell to 58,924, starting the downward trend of migration in the upcoming years. As per the South Korean government’s official data, nearly 2,821 of their nationals or former nationals were in Saudi in 2014, which was up by about 40 percent from 2,014 in the year 2011. The current final figure available on the External Ministry website of South Korea shows the latest data of 2018, with nearly 3,220 Korean residing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Political Agreements Between the Two Nations

There have been several high-profile political as well as partnership visits between both nations since 1980. In the May of the same year, President Choi Kyu-hah toured Saudi to address the oil crisis in his nation prevailing since 1973 and met with Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to persuade him to increase oil exports to Korea. Since then, there have been more and more visits from both sides, with His Royal Highness Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud visiting South Korea in 1987. Currently, South Korean investors are among the most important Saudi Arabia investors as they benefit economically from the new inventions and set-ups in almost every industry, including medicine, infrastructure, and labor.

The strategic and cordial relation between the two independent states took a positive turn when Saudi Arabia chose the Republic of Korea as one of its major cooperation partners as part of its Vision 2030 declared in April of 2016. Both the nations opened a bilateral joint committee and agreed to build and work upon more than 40 cooperation projects in five major sectors as part of Vision 2030. Among the many areas, the two nations agreed to work cooperatively on eco-friendly vehicle technologies, automotive parts development and promoting investment in Saudi Arabia. For South Korea, the agreement brings reduced economic dependence on oil and public service sector development. Mutually, both nations will establish closer cooperation in the automotive sector, hydrogen economy, security and defense, and health and warfare.

Trends and Analysis of South Korea and Saudi Arabia Relations (including remittances)

  • Saudi is one of the popular migrant destinations for South Koreans.
  • Although in fewer numbers, North Koreans have begun to arrive in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But there exist no diplomatic relations between the two nations.
  • South Korea is one of the fastest-growing languages in Saudi owing to the popularity of K-pop and K-drama. Many Saudi students are also learning South Korean to attend universities and conferences in the country.
  • Out of the nearly three thousand Koreans in Saudi, there is hardly any concrete evidence on men’s and women’s numbers. Nonetheless, it is evident to assume that men would be more than women in Saudi.
  • While the initial migrants from South Korea were employed in construction in Saudi, the current workers are now well-paid as construction contractors and in different white-collar jobs.
  • With the growth of the South Korean economy, the migrants to Saudi reduced numbers with the early settled immigrants now living in villas rather than dorms. White-collar jobs immigrants stay in luxurious homes.
  • There have been several imports and exports between the two diplomatic countries:
  • As per the recent data, the imports from Saudi Arabia to South Korea increased to 1166945 USD THO in September 2020 from 1114750 USD THO in August.
  • Similarly, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, South Korean exports to Saudi were US$3.7 Billion in 2019 (updated in November 2020).

Read more case studies on Saudi Arabia

An Engineer by education, and a writer by profession, Ritika lives her life in stories. Her never-ending love for narratives encouraged her to turn her passion into a profession. In more than 4 years of working as a content writer, she has contributed to building content for a reputed technology magazine and a few start-ups.

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