Moon's UAE trip loses luster over canceled summit with crown prince

President Moon Jae-in holds a phone call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan at a hotel in Dubai, Monday (local time). Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

DUBAI ― President Moon Jae-in has wrapped up his visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Tuesday (local time), with a botched summit between himself and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The last-minute cancellation of the summit took the shine off of a trip which otherwise had a number of meaningful accomplishments during the three-day visit.

Moon was scheduled to have the summit with the crown prince on Monday on the occasion of President Moon's visit to Expo 2020 Dubai. However, Korea's presidential office announced Sunday night that the meeting was canceled due to "inevitable reasons."

The summit between the two was replaced with a 25-minute phone conversation on Monday night.

Presidential spokeswoman Park Kyung-mee quoted Moon as saying, "I couldn't meet the crown prince this time, but UAE Prime Minister and the ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum expressed his warm welcome instead, and I deeply appreciate your sincerity and efforts."

The crown prince is said to have replied to Moon that he was happy to hear the voice of Moon, describing him as "a brother." The UAE leader also offered his apology for talking over the phone, and expressed regrets on the canceled meeting due to "situations which are out of his hands," according to Park.

Moon responded by expressing condemnation on a drone attack in Abu Dhabi, Monday, and offered his condolences to the victims of the tragedy. The attack, claimed by Yemen's Houthi rebels, exploded three oil tankers and caused a fire at an extension of Abu Dhabi International Airport, killing three people. Moon was staying in Dubai.

According to the spokeswoman, the crown prince said the attack was "already anticipated," triggering various speculations on the reason behind the cancellation of his meeting with Moon.

However, Im Jong-seok, former chief of staff to Moon and special envoy to the UAE told reporters that "(the cancellation) has nothing to do with the attack" and the crown prince's comment is "assumed to be referring to chronic risks of the country."

Despite the leaders' cordial greetings, the canceled summit has overshadowed achievements during Moon's stay in the UAE, including Korean companies' exporting of the Cheongung-II missile to the UAE in a deal reportedly worth $3.36 billion.

Cheong Wa Dae described the deal as an achievement of Moon's trip, but the opposition bloc downplayed this, saying the deal had already been completed regardless of Moon's visit, and the President failed to accomplish the most important goal of his trip ― having a summit with the UAE leader.

"Before Moon was to begin his trip, Cheong Wa Dae said it cannot preannounce 'the achievement of (missile) export' because it requires consultation with its counterpart, and this means that the deal was already clinched regardless of Moon's visit to the UAE," Chang Young-il, vice spokesperson of the main opposition People Power Party's presidential election team, said in a commentary, Monday.

In November, UAE's Ministry of Defense tweeted that it plans to acquire the missile system, which was hailed in Korea as a success in the defense export industry.
During Moon's meeting with the ruler of Dubai on Monday, the companies involved in the deal exchanged contracts and did not sign any further documents, as the deal had already be done.

As criticisms stir, a senior Cheong Wa Dae official said "Moon's meeting with the Dubai ruler is tantamount to a summit," adding "the crown prince is No. 3 in diplomatic precedence while the ruler of Dubai stands as No. 2."

President Moon had summits with the crown prince twice when Moon visited the UAE in 2018 and the prince paid a reciprocal visit to Korea in 2019.

President Moon Jae-in looks around the Korea Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, Sunday (local time). Yonhap

Moon's effort to promote Busan as the host of the 2030 World Expo also appeared to have lost its luster, because he could not get the UAE's clear stance on Busan's bid.

The UAE expressed its intention to support Saudi Arabia when Riyadh announced its bid in October last year. Due to this, questions were raised over whether Korea properly understands the UAE's stance on World Expo 2030.

During the meeting with the ruler of Dubai, Moon asked for the "UAE's interest and support on Busan's bid," but the Dubai ruler "did not make special remarks" in response, according to the senior Cheong Wa Dae official.

North Korea's continued threats are also clouding Moon's achievements during the UAE visit. On Monday, Pyongyang fired two presumed short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), just three days after it launched SRBMs from a train.

The latest launch dealt a heavier blow to Moon, because it came in the midst of growing public sentiment against the President's overseas trip amid the tightening of COVID-19 restrictions in Korea.

Cheong Wa Dae suffered harsh criticism from the opposition bloc when Moon visited Australia last month, though Korea signed a deal to export K-9 self-propelled howitzers with the Australian Army.

Nam Hyun-woo

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