TUNIS, Asharq Al-Awsat – Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara on the sidelines of the 2nd Arab – Japan Economic Forum which was held earlier this week in Tunis.
The Japan-Arab Economic Forum was first established in 2009 through collaboration between Japan and the Arab League in order to provide a platform for cabinet ministers and business leaders on both sides to discuss tangible strategies for enhancing their economic ties in a wide range of areas including trade, investment, energy, science and technology, and human resource development.
The 1st Arab – Japan Economic Forum was held in Tokyo in December 2009. There were more than nine hundred attendees from Japan, and over three hundred from the Arab side. The 2nd Arab – Japan Economic Forum was held between 11– 12 December 2010 in Tunis.
Japanese Foreign Minister spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about strengthening Japan – Arab economic relations, his hopes for the Economic Forum, and Japan – Arab cooperation in the energy field.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What will Japan introduce to the 2nd Japan – Arab Economic forum? What is required in order to ensure constructive discussion with regards to Japanese – Arab economic relations?
[Maehara] I am determined to achieve positive progress in Japan’s diplomatic and economic relations with the Arabs. I would like to support more exchange and cooperation in the economic field between both sides during this forum which brings together senior government officials and leading businessmen from both Japan and the Arab world. I believe all the issues that will be discussed during this forum including energy, environment, the development of human resources, sciences, technology, investment, tourism, finance and others, are important in achieving further growth in the economic relations between Japan and the Arabs.
Over the past few years, Arab countries have achieved a steady economic growth as well as a population increase, particularly due to the growth in the number of young people, who are the most capable as a workforce. Arab countries have been transformed into an export market and an attractive region for investment with its own particular charm for Japanese companies. Japan is able to use its cutting-edge technology to improve Arab countries’ infrastructure; it can also contribute to developing science and technology and human resources in Arab countries. In this regard, I will work to build beneficial relations between both sides, Japan and the Arab States.
As for economic growth, the only way to achieve this is to maintain peace and stability. Japan hopes that peaceful solutions will be reached with regards to the Middle East’s problems, particularly the problem of regional peace. Japan wishes to cooperate as much as possible for peace and stability in the Middle East. As for the friendly relations between Japan and Arab countries, I believe that we can strengthen these relations through cooperation and cultural exchange between the two parties. I believe that it is important to work to achieve growth on multiple levels in different fields in Japan – Arab relations, like trade, investment, political dialogue, cultural exchange, and others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your opinion, how constructive will the Japan – Arab dialogue be with regards to major cooperative or joint projects on solar energy, hydropower, and science and technology?
[Maehara] The Middle East region possesses large capabilities with regards to solar energy and hydropower. I expect the advanced technology that Japan possesses in these fields will be employed by Arab countries. As for the government, the Japanese government will also work to support and promote this. In addition to this, I would like to support the work to strengthen our cooperative relations with Arab countries in the field of solar power by providing ODA [official developmental assistance]. At the moment, dialogue is taking place on policies regarding water resources, and I am pleased to say that I expect serious discussion to take place during the Economic Forum on these issues.
Japan will also contribute to developing science and technology in Arab countries, particularly Egypt through the Egypt – Japan University of Science and Technology, where cooperation exists with Japanese universities, and presently experts and technical equipment are being sent to the university [from Japan]. In Saudi Arabia, there is Japanese cooperation in technical training, particularly in plastic manufacturing, and the field of electricity, electronics, and car maintenance.
Japan is an important country and one of the major consumers of petroleum exported from the Middle East. Japan imports over 60 billion dollars worth of petroleum from the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC] states per annum.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you see the relationship between Japan and the Middle East developing in the future with regards to energy?
[Maehara] The petroleum imported by Japan from the Middle East in 2009 accounted for 90 percent of Japan’s overall petroleum import. Petroleum from the Middle East is considered to be relatively cheap in view of its quality and in comparison with petroleum produced in other parts of the world. Moreover, petroleum produced in the Middle East has an advantage with regards to transportation costs in comparison to petroleum produced in West Africa. Therefore I believe it is important to continue to strengthen the strong relations between Japan and the Middle East countries, particularly with regards to importing petroleum.
In addition to this, addressing climate change has become one of the major issues being dealt with by the international community over the past few years. That is why it is positive to see the application of renewable energy programs and the production of nuclear energy taking place in the Middle East. Japan possesses advanced technological capabilities and huge practical experiences in this field, and it has begun a genuine cooperation with Middle Eastern countries on this. Concerning the partnership between Japan and Middle East countries in the field of energy, I believe in diversifying and expanding this in the future, not just with regards to petroleum and natural gas production, but also in the fields of renewable energy, nuclear energy, and others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Investment in the petrochemical industry is something that is important for both Japan and the Middle East. Can you tell us whether any projects or being studied or discussed between Japanese and Arab companies with regards to petroleum and petrochemical refinement?
[Maehara] I am pleased to announce that Japan is participating in petroleum and petrochemical refinement in a number of ways. Let me give you a recent example of this kind of participation being undertaken by Japanese companies. In November of last year a celebration was held on the completion of a project by the Rabigh Refining & Petrochemical Company [Petro Rabigh] which is jointly owned by Saudi Aramco and [the Japanese] Sumitomo Chemical Co. Japan considers this project to be the largest investment venture in the Middle East region and Africa. In addition to this, I know that there are several other projects in the Middle East that are currently being studied or negotiated on [by Japanese countries]. As for the government of Japan, we aim to strengthen our economic ties and positively support Japanese companies operating in the Middle East.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Japan imports around 24 percent of its natural gas requirements from the Middle East, particularly from Qatar, Oman, and the UAE. Can you tell us if there are any plans for Japan or Japanese countries to invest in this field, or undertake joint projects with Arab countries?
[Maehara] Japan first began importing liquefied natural gas [LNG] in 1969. Today Japan is the largest importer of LNG in the world, importing around 40 percent of the world’s entire production of LNG. Over the past 40 years or so, Japanese companies have improved LNG technology and increased the capacity of LNG [manufacturing] plants. Japanese companies have worked on advancing the technology, leading to increased confidence in, and demands for, LNG plants. Japan can take pride in its world-class technology in the field of LNG. I believe that it is excellent that Japan is contributing to the development of Middle East countries [in this field]. Japanese technology has helped in setting up a recently built LNG plant in Qatar, which produced 77 tonnes of LNG a year.
In comparison to oil and coal, natural gas energy is known to be environment friendly as it produces less gas emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide compounds. In addition to this, natural gas does not produce sulphuric compounds. There are many Middle East countries that have rich natural gas resources. Therefore there is a possibility for more cooperation between Japan and Arab countries in developing natural gas resources. The government of Japan will work to the best of its ability to support this.