4 May 2007 - 17:35
  • News Code: 103800

CAIRO - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first Middle East tour has boosted Japan’s energy security and launched a new broader relationship, experts say.

But whether the mission brings tangible benefits will depend on whether Tokyo can play the significant role it has promised in the region, where expectations of the world’s second-largest economy run high, they say.

 

Abe wound up a whirlwind Middle Eastern trip on Wednesday here after holding a series of talks with the leaders of Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

 

The tour was part of his efforts to boost Japan’s diplomatic contacts. Abe chose China as his first foreign destination in office last October, putting aside Tokyo’s high priority pilgrimage to Washington, which eventually came before his latest trip.

 

‘I have talked about heralding a new era between Japan and the Middle East by being actively involved in the region, deepening mutual understanding and forming multi-layered relations beyond oil,’ Abe told a news conference.

 

Experts said Abe received general support for his initiative to cement energy partnerships with the Gulf states, which provide more than 70 percent of the resource-poor Asian country’s oil and natural gas.

 

In a joint statement released in Kuwait on Monday, the Gulf state ‘expressed its commitment to assure steady and stable oil supplies to Japan,’ while Tokyo pledged to offer technical cooperation in oil-related projects.

 

‘Japan’s objective is, of course, to secure a stable supply of energy resources,’ said Sadashi Fukuda, director general of the Institute of Developing Economies (IDE), based in Japan.

 

‘But this time, Abe stressed a wider partnership, avoiding putting energy security in front, which is one of the major factors leading to a successful outcome,’ Fukuda said.

 

In Riyadh, Abe and King Abdullah agreed to forge ‘multi-layered’  ties between Japan and Saudi Arabia, while the premier agreed with UAE leaders to launch a high-level dialogue to boost economic ties, pledging to speed up free trade talks.

 

‘Arab leaders appear to have an impression that Japan’s interest in the Middle East is high as this visit was made soon after (former) prime minister (Junichiro) Koizumi visited the region,’  said Hiroshi Shiojiri, executive director of the Middle East Research Institute of Japan.

 

It was the second visit in less than a year by a Japanese premier to the Middle East, following Koizumi’s July trip to Israel and its Arab neighbours, when he said Japan could be a neutral broker in the strife-torn region.

 

As a first step towards visible results, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) signed an agreement on Sunday to boost Japanese investment in resources-related projects in the UAE.

 

The government-run bank plans to provide ADNOC with loans expected to amount to around a billion dollars, a Japanese source said, adding that details of the loan, including the total amount, had yet to be finalised.

 

In an effort to further strengthen business ties, Abe took a 180-strong business delegation with him, one of the biggest groups ever to accompany a Japanese leader overseas.

 

‘Japan is ready to cooperate with the Gulf countries in diversifying their industries,’ Fujio Mitarai, head of the delegation and chairman of Canon, told AFP.

 

‘Japan can provide technological cooperation and foster human resources,’ he said. ‘Japanese support in the fields of the environment and energy saving will be helpful for them. Natural resources are not unlimited in the end.’

 

Now that talks are over, it is time for action, experts say.

 

‘From now on, the focus is moving to how Prime Minister Abe can realise the multi-layered partnership,’ IDE’s Fukuda said.

 

‘Countries in the Middle East are faced with various problems such as industrialisation, unemployment and human resources development,’ he said. ‘Their expectations from Japan are very high.’

 

On the diplomatic front, Abe and Arab leaders jointly urged Iran to comply with UN sanctions and to resolve peacefully the crisis over its nuclear ambitions.

 

They also renewed their pledge to help reconstruct Iraq and give maximum support for the Middle East peace process.

 

Abe used the trip to make the first visit by a Japanese leader to Japan’s personnel posted in Kuwait for an air force mission supporting US-led operations in Iraq.

 

‘Peace and stability of the Middle East are indispensable for peace and prosperity of the international community and also have a direct impact on our national interest,’ Abe said.

 

PIN/AFP

News Code 103800

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