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SEOUL: Saudi Arabia and South Korea signed a preliminary agreement to expand defense cooperation, Seoul’s arms procurement agency has said as the East Asian country looks to broaden its arms export market.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense and South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration signed the memorandum of understanding on Sunday on the sidelines of the World Defense Show in Riyadh.

The agreement sets the formation of a joint committee to develop cooperation in the defense industry and technology and to conduct weapons system research and production, DAPA said in a statement.

“This MoU will serve as a cornerstone to move the bilateral relationship forward to a future-oriented strategic partnership,” DAPA Director Eom Dong-hwan said.

“I hope this agreement will contribute to developing the bilateral relationship further, providing more opportunities … for defense cooperation.”  

South Korea is aiming to become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter by 2027 and has set eyes on the “diversification of defense export markets,” Defense Minister Shin Won-sik, who witnessed the MoU signing alongside his Saudi counterpart Khalid bin Salman, told reporters at the Riyadh exhibition.

“South Korea will develop a long-term partnership with Saudi Arabia not only in arms sales but also in terms of broader defense cooperation to make a win-win situation,” Shin said.

Shin also held talks with the Minister of Saudi National Guard Abdullah bin Bandar during his time in Riyadh, where they discussed ways to also strengthen military cooperation, the South Korean Defense Ministry said in a statement.

In the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, South Korea has emerged as a leading defense supplier in the world, as it became one of the few countries able to deliver weapons systems quickly and efficiently following decades of preparation under the threat of conflict with North Korea.

The country’s arms exports jumped to $17 billion in 2022, far surpassing a record of $7.25 billion in the previous year. The country was the ninth-largest arms seller in the world that same year, rising from its 31st place in 2000, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly driven demand for South Korean weapons systems with high levels of technologies and better price competitiveness,” military analyst Ahn Seung-beom, the publisher of the monthly Defense Times magazine, told Arab News.

“Still, South Korea is facing stiff competition from other global arms exporters, so South Korea is striving to pioneer new defense markets to further expand its global footprints,” he said. “In this regard, Saudi Arabia would be the best potential arms partner due to the Kingdom’s high demands for collaboration in the defense industry.”

South Korea’s leniency in technology transfer and cooperative measures makes it an ideal partner for countries like Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom seeks “to build up self-reliant defense capabilities,” instead of purchasing off-the-shelf arms products, Ahn added.

South Korean arms companies, such as Hanwha, Poongsan and LIG Nex1, concluded deals with Saudi Arabia worth around $989 million collectively, which include multiple rocket launchers, ammunition and electro-optical systems, according to a 2023 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Arab Gulf states are looking to diversify their sources of defense procurement and partnerships beyond their traditional Western suppliers … Seoul can offer increasingly advanced equipment alternatives, often at competitive prices and with shorter lead times,” the report said.

At the Riyadh defense show, which ends on Feb. 8, major South Korean arms manufacturers, including Hanwha Aerospace, Hyundai Rotem and LIG Nex1, are showcasing a variety of weapons systems covering the domains of air, land and sea, some customized to suit the environment in the Middle East and the region’s defense interests.

“Hanwha aims to collaborate with Saudi Arabia to contribute to the growth and modernization of the Kingdom’s defense industry,” a Hanwha spokesperson told Arab News. “Hanwha takes pride in our ongoing commitment to delivering deterrence solutions to key customers in the region.”

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