Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ties between Saudi Arabia and Japan have remained strong since official relations began in 1955. Saudi Arabia remains the largest supplier of oil to Japan, and Japan the largest foreign investor in Saudi Arabia.
As Saudi Crown Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz began his state visit to Japan on Tuesday, the second leg of his tour of Asian countries, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with the Japanese Consul-General in Saudi Arabia, Matahiro Yamaguchi, about the visit. He also discussed Japan’s role in helping the Kingdom diversify its energy resources, as well as other joint projects between the two countries in many fields, including trade, industry, education and manufacture.
Asharq Al-Awsat: The Crown Prince, accompanied by a large delegation of officials and businessmen, is currently paying a visit to Japan. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Saudi Arabia. In light of these two visits, will we see a new era of Saudi–Japanese cooperation?
Matahiro Yamaguchi: The visit of the Japanese prime minister to Saudi Arabia represented the start of an expansion in cooperation between the two countries, moving beyond the energy sector into other modern fields and helping in the exchange of expertise and the building of strategic partnerships. Prime Minister Abe reiterated in his speech at the King Abdulaziz University that he saw his visit to Saudi Arabia as a benchmark and that he wanted to establish strong and binding relations between Japan and Saudi Arabia, and with the Middle East a whole.
We hope the relations between the two countries develop significantly, and the visit by Prince Salman reiterates the seriousness of the efforts to develop the cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Japan in all fields, including investment, energy, trade, cooperation and student scholarship programs.
Q: Energy and water are very important issues for Saudi Arabia. What can Japan provide in these two fields?
As you know, Japan does not have [many] natural resources, and therefore it has developed techniques to increase water and energy sector efficiency. Saudi Arabia is now looking to diversify its energy and water resources, and Japan certainly has enough expertise and means to help the Kingdom in these fields.
Q: There are several large-scale projects in the western region and Medina, such as public transport projects in Mecca, Medina and Jeddah and the Haramain High-Speed Rail Project. Japan has very advanced technology in these fields. Are Japanese companies interested in participating in these projects? What could the Japanese Consulate offer Saudi companies that request Japanese help or partnership in these projects?
Japanese companies usually prefer working on entire projects, rather than working on one part, because they can only give guarantees for the systems they put in place, and not those of others.
By the way, some people believe that Japanese products and projects are very expensive, but this notion is completely wrong, because you will not have to spend any more money for repair or maintenance for a long time, and you will not face technical problems that would cost you a lot of time and money.
Using that simple calculation, what may seem cheaper in the beginning is actually very costly in the end. A Japanese product that may seem expensive is actually very cheap in the end, and that is something Japanese products are known for in terms of quality and high-quality specifications. I think the Dubai Metro, which was completed within six years by a Japanese company, is a very good example of that.
Of course, our doors are open to all Saudis who want to contact Japanese companies. We can provide them with all the required information through the Japanese Foreign Trade Commission.
Q: As Saudi Arabia and Japan mark the 60th year of the establishment of diplomatic relations, how much has been achieved in the cooperation in trade, investment, export and import, foreign policy, fighting terrorism and piracy?
Japanese investments in Saudi Arabia currently exceed 12 billion US dollars and oil imports exceed 48 billion dollars. Japanese cars and electrical goods exports to Saudi Arabia are valued at around 8.4 billion dollars. Saudi Arabia and Japan make joint efforts to fight terrorism and piracy.
Last year they held joint naval exercises in the Red Sea, and last week Prince Salman met Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano, Chief of Staff of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Following the directives set by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah, the Crown Prince awarded Admiral Kawano with the Order of King Abdulaziz in recognition of his distinguished efforts in consolidating the bonds of friendship and cooperation between the Kingdom and Japan.
Q: Do you expect an expansion in Japanese investment in the Mecca and Medina regions, especially in small and medium enterprises (SMEs)?
At the moment and according to a bilateral investment protection treaty signed by the two countries last year during the Japanese prime minister’s visit to Jeddah, Japanese companies will explore cooperation opportunities in the SME sector. A primary contract was signed between the Saudi companies Tasnee and Cristal Global and the Japanese company Toho, which produces titanium sponge powder, in order to establish a joint venture to build an installation to produce titanium sponge powder.
The joint venture will invest 420 million dollars to build the installation in Yanbu, to produce some 15,600 metric tons annually. The new factory is expected to start commercial production in the second quarter of 2017, and will be completed by the first quarter of 2018.
An official at Tasnee said that through their partnership with Toho and using the latter’s advanced production technology, they will embark on building an installation to produce high-quality sponge powder titanium at very competitive prices.
Q: The Saudi Japanese Automobile High Institute is a prominent example of Saudi–Japanese cooperation in youth training, and we know that you played a role in establishing this institution. Eleven years after its establishment, what can you tell us about it?
I am very proud and happy to see the fruits of the hard work we put into establishing this institute, and I am honored to know that some of the graduates have become instructors at the institute. Around 2,000 Saudi youths have graduated from the Institute, receiving training from Japanese experts and acquiring the Japanese work ethic. This is a truly great achievement, and a great addition to the car-manufacturing sector in the Kingdom, as well as being a massive boost for the Saudization policy. We should also not forget the important role played by [then-Crown Prince] King Abdullah, in establishing this institute by providing the land for its building.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.