Tokyo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Japanese Muslims first visited Saudi Arabia in 1909 to perform the hajj. Since then Saudi–Japanese ties have strengthened and deepened into the comprehensive partnership that exists between the two countries today.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida highlighted the ties between Tokyo and Riyadh, confirming that cooperation between the two countries now extends to all fields. Kishida added that Saudi–Japanese cooperation will only increase in the years to come, adding that Tokyo also aims to meet its international obligations in terms of resolving the Syrian crisis and Iranian nuclear file.
Kishida spoke with Asharq Al-Awsat on the sidelines of Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s state visit to Japan.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz made a historic visit to Japan last week, concluding agreements and meeting with a number of senior Japanese officials. What is your view of the visit and its significance for the relationship between the two countries?
Fumio Kishida: The Japanese people know that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is rich in natural resources. They also know that it appeared in the movie Lawrence of Arabia and that it is also home to the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. With the broadening and deepening relationship between the two countries, the Japanese people have begun to know more about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia over the past years, and that it is a country rich in culture and natural scenery. These are very attractive characteristics, and have served to further impress the people of Japan.
Japan and Saudi Arabia have developed good relations since 1955, when the two countries established diplomatic ties on the basis of energy cooperation. Today, the two countries are seeking to strengthen their comprehensive partnership to cover the cultural, economic and political sectors.
When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between April 30 and May 1, 2013, he and Crown Prince Salman agreed to build relations on all levels, not just in the energy sector. The Crown Prince’s visit will open a new phase in Japanese–Saudi bilateral relations. Japan also attaches historical importance to this visit, viewing it as an occasion to achieve tangible progress between the Saudi Arabian and Japanese peoples and governments and thus establish a comprehensive partnership.
Japan also intends to consolidate cooperation with the Kingdom in terms of dealing with Iran’s nuclear program and the Syrian crisis. Japan is seeking to positively contribute to achieving more stability and peace in the world, including in the Middle East on the basis of the principle of “proactive contribution,” based on international cooperation. Therefore Japan cannot dispense with its cooperation with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given that it is the main Middle Eastern country that is playing a key role in securing stability and peace in the region.
In the economic sector, Japan imports approximately 33 percent of its crude oil needs from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which it considers to be one of its most important commercial partners. In addition to this, we look forward to cooperating with Saudi Arabia and further developing relations between the two countries to serve the interests and improve the welfare of the two peoples. Our cooperation with the Kingdom does not just cover the energy sector, but also the investment and industry sectors, development of small and medium-sized enterprises and infrastructure, nuclear energy, and cultural and humanitarian exchanges. We will also strengthen education cooperation by establishing student exchange programs, pushing for dialogue between youth, and sports exchange programs.
Q: What is your view of the historical relationship between Saudi Arabia and Japan?
The history of exchange between the two countries dates back to 1909, when Japanese Muslims first went on pilgrimage to Mecca. During the next hundred years, particularly after World War II and the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1955, friendly relations and mutual understanding were built on the national level between these two geographically, culturally and religiously different states.
The relationship between the Saudi royal family and the Japanese imperial dynasty played a significant and axial role in propelling national relations between the two countries. King Faisal Bin Abdulaziz visited Japan in 1971 following an official invitation [from the Emperor]. In 1981, the Japanese Emperor—who was the Crown Prince at the time—visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1994, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the first foreign country that the Japanese Crown Prince visited with the Crown Princess following their marriage. Ever since then, the Saudi and Japanese Crown Princes have enjoyed a friendly relationship. The Japanese Crown Prince visited Saudi Arabia to express his condolences when former Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, may he rest in peace, died in 2011, and when Crown Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz, may he rest in peace, died in 2012.
This friendship must be maintained by means of national cooperation between the two countries in all domains. This is not to mention the historical links between the Japanese Imperial dynasty and the Saudi royal family, which must be transferred to the next generations in both countries.
Q: There are aspirations and ambitions in both Japan and Saudi Arabia to increase bilateral investment and trade. What steps will contribute to achieving this goal?
Saudi Arabia was ranked 22nd out of 183 countries in term of “ease of doing business,” according to the “Doing Business 2013” report issued by the World Bank. In addition to this, it has become possible to establish companies with 100 percent foreign capital in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia thanks to the Foreign Investment Law of 2000, while the agreement for the avoidance of double taxation between Japan and Saudi Arabia came into effect in 2011. As a result of all this, the number of Japanese companies in Saudi Arabia now stands at 92.
By benefiting from these features, both countries are working to improve the atmosphere in order to help stimulate trade and investment between the two countries. More specifically, in April 2013 Saudi Arabia and Japan signed an agreement to stimulate and protect joint investment in order to encourage more Japanese companies to expand their operations into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As for the private sector, the Saudi–Japanese Business Council also signed an agreement on February 18, 2014. Businessmen from both countries met to hold constructive discussions on ways to improve the business environment and encourage joint investment. Japanese companies have a strong desire [to contribute to] large infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia, such as water and sanitation projects, as well as railway projects. What is required is to develop cooperation in these fields in the near future.
Q: Japan is working to increase its investments in Saudi Arabia through a number of projects, and it is also involved in training and educating Saudi youth, with some 400 Saudi students studying in the country. How can we strengthen these ties in light of the already-close relations between Saudi Arabia and Japan?
Japan is actively participating in developing human resources in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in order to contribute to promoting economic development and industrial diversity. To be specific, we are supporting the development of human resources via training institutes such as the Saudi–Japanese Automobile High Institute in Jeddah, the Saudi Electronics and Home Appliances Institute in Riyadh, and the Higher Institute for Plastic Fabrications in Riyadh. This is part of technical cooperation between the public and private sectors.
In addition to this, we are seeking to provide strong support to develop small- and medium-sized projects in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Japan wants to promote technical cooperation according to the needs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, taking advantage of the framework known as “technical cooperation based on cost-sharing,” which is implemented by the Japanese Agency for International Cooperation.
Q: How does Japan regard the situation in the Middle East? How does it view the situation in Syria in light of the ongoing conflict there? How does Tokyo view the Iranian nuclear file?
I am of the view that the situation in Syria is very dangerous. More than 110,000 people have been killed so far on Syrian territory, and more than 6.5 million Syrians have been internally displaced. As for the number of refugees who have fled the country, this now stands at more than 2.4 million. In order to deal with this situation, Japan has committed to providing humanitarian aid to Syria and its neighboring countries worth more than 400 million US dollars. As I said at the Geneva II conference that was held in January, Japan strongly hopes to see the return of a beautiful Syria, and that is why my country is taking part in the international community’s efforts to bear responsibility. I believe that our participation in humanitarian assistance and political dialogue is important and is in accordance with our policy of “proactive contribution to peace.”
As for the Iranian nuclear issue, Japan welcomes the agreement between the EU3+3 [the P5+1] and Iran as a big step towards reaching a comprehensive solution on this issue. It is important to exert more effort to implement this deal and conclude a final agreement. It is beneficial for peace and stability in the Middle East, and the world at large, for Iran to become a force that contributes to stability by allaying the doubts of the Arab Gulf states. This is important not just at the level of the Middle East, but at the international level as well. In this regard, since President Hassan Rouhani took office Japan has always urged Iran to be flexible. Japan is eager to work on this issue based on our traditionally close bilateral relations with Iran, and in cooperation with the E3+3.