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Egypt, Korea: Two old civilizations unite

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Published : 2010-06-27 17:51
Updated : 2010-06-27 17:51

For some embassies, cultural activities are one of the most important tools in their arsenal to improve relations with Korea.

Egypt is one of those countries.

“Culture is very important; through culture you can achieve miracles, more than politics, economics and anything else,” newly arrived Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Elzorkany told The Korea Herald.

One important cultural performance in the cards is the dance troupe El Horya -- meaning freedom or liberty in Arabic -- who will perform in several cities in Korea starting in August.

“Culture has an impact that no other power could have,” he said. “Things like that can be useful in improving relations.”

But culture is not one sided -- the Korean Foreign Ministry did the same two months ago when it sent the Korea National Opera to Cairo to give the North African nation a taste of Korea. 
Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed Elzorkany Yoav Cerralbo/The Korea Herald

The importance Cairo places on this nation is tremendous and Egypt heavily investing in the future with yearly scholarships for Korean students to study Arabic at some of the best schools in Egypt.

The 13 scholarships cover everything from tuition to a small stipend for living expenses.

“We have established the first Korean language department in an Egyptian university,” he said. Created five years ago, it is the only such program in the Middle East.

“We are trying to promote relations of this kind and we have a lot of Egyptian students coming here to further their post graduate degrees, particularly in scientific fields,” said Elzorkany.

The ambassador is looking to foster people-to-people exchanges because “if you want to promote good relations, there is nothing better.”

Promoting Egyptian cuisine is also of importance to the ambassador and he plans to take every opportunity possible to show the various dishes his country can offer.



Tourism



There are currently three flights a week and between Seoul and Cairo. “If it weren’t for the economic crisis, it would have been on a daily basis,” said Elzorkany.

In total, there are about 75,000 Korean tourists opting for a vacation in the sun every year and this year’s first quarter numbers witnessed an increase of 78 percent from the same period last year.

Tourism is a major foreign exchange earner for the country, with almost 10 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2007, according to the World Tourism Organization.

Besides the pyramids, many Korean tourists follow the pilgrimage taken by the Holy Family.

The Egyptian government has devoted considerable efforts to document Christian monuments, including churches and monasteries, as well as providing an overview of the route the Holy Family took.

Much cultural and tourism development efforts have been put into this project, which opens up new tourist destinations in Egypt.

However, this route is a traditional trip; other attractions that are gaining a lot of attention among Korean tourists are exotic desert and oasis tourism packages.

Lawrence of Arabia would have probably never left the oasis if he saw what has developed in recent years. “It’s basically a green oasis inside the desert, but with all the modern amenities and the creature comforts one expects from a resort,” said Elzorkany.



Trade



According to the Korea International Trade Association, trade between Korea and Egypt stood at almost $2 billion last year, but in 2008, before the economic downturn, bilateral trade hit almost $3 billion.

The ambassador said that most of Egypt’s exports to Korea are in the energy sector.

Korean investments are also high in Egypt -- totaling $450 million.

“We are also trying to cooperate in the field of construction in the Middle East,” he said. “Egypt is solid in construction as well, so we are hoping that Korean firms subcontract us for their projects in the Middle East.”

While the size and scope of Egyptian construction firms in the Middle East and the Gulf States do not equal the size of their counterparts from Korea, Elzorkany believes Egypt can play a valuable role in that part of the world because Egyptians speak the same language, share the same religion and cultures as their Arab neighbors.

On the international stage, Egypt has been playing a leading role in trying to settle the Israel-Palestinian problem.

Elzorkany explained that his country is focusing its efforts on reconciliation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Without reconciliation, resolving the Palestinian issue would be very difficult if not impossible,” said Elzorkany.

By Yoav Cerralbo  (yoav@heraldcorp.com)