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Japan’s Important Role in Saudi’s Vision 2030

In late August and early September, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman led a Saudi delegation to Tokyo to meet with Japan’s political leadership and business elite. The visit underscored not only Saudi Arabia’s interest in seeking Japanese investment in Vision 2030, but also Riyadh’s view of Japan as a country with a historically close relationship with the kingdom.

At this juncture, the leaders of both Saudi Arabia and Japan view their bilateral ties as crucial for protecting each others’ short- and long-term interests. From Riyadh’s perspective, the potential for Vision 2030 to successfully diversify the kingdom’s economy beyond its traditional oil sector will depend on the world’s wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations investing in Saudi Arabia. Japan, a powerhouse with the fourth largest economy in the world and no historical baggage in the Arab world, naturally fits into Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030.

As Japan’s top supplier of crude oil, Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability is significant for Tokyo, which wants to ensure that undisrupted flows of oil continue to fuel its economy. Thus, it is in Japan’s interest to ensure that Riyadh’s Vision 2030 is a success, and the kingdom is able to maintain economic stability into the 21st century.

Japan’s Growing Interest in the Middle East

While exploiting niche opportunities in the Middle East, Japan has played a historically passive role in the region based on its cultural orientation. Tokyo’s priority in the Middle East has been securing a steady flow of hydrocarbon resources to power its economy while maintaining neutrality in regional wars and desiring to pursue positive relations with all state actors.

Today, however, as seemingly endless conflicts continue to rage across the Arab world, Japanese officials have taken stock of how the Middle East’s geopolitical instability threatens their country’s national interests. Indeed, Japan’s interdependence with the Middle East and its vulnerability to turmoil in the region is not new. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) created major challenges for Japan’s Middle East foreign policy, which focused on guarding its trade and investment interests with Persian Gulf countries, including Iran (where Japan had its largest private overseas investment at the time of the Shah’s ouster), while maintaining neutrality in local conflicts and supporting U.N.-backed peace initiatives. For decades, Japan’s post-war constitution prohibited the country’s military from engaging in offensive actions. Tokyo’s military footprint in the region was primarily limited to the deployment of the Japan Self-Defense Forces (J.S.D.F.) on humanitarian, reconstruction, and peacekeeping missions such as in Iraq and the Golan Heights.

At this juncture, however, Japan is signaling an increased interest in using its military power to protect the country’s access to energy supplies from the Arabian Peninsula and greater Middle East. In late 2008, Japan deployed a military reconnaissance battalion for operations off the coasts of Djibouti, Kenya, Oman, and Yemen. In 2011, Japan established a military base in Djibouti—Japan’s first on foreign soil since World War II, which Tokyo officials decided last year to make permanent. Approximately 600 J.S.D.F. members currently use the African country’s ports to operate naval vessels and a land facility. Given that roughly 10 percent of the ships which transit the Bab-el-Mandeb (the strait situated between Djibouti, Eritrea, and Yemen linking the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea) are Japanese, it was logical for Japan to extend its military presence to a country strategically situated at the Red Sea’s southern gate.

In 2012, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda spoke about Japan’s need to deploy the J.S.D.F. to the Strait of Hormuz for minesweeping and escort operations in case the key shipping route closes. Last July, Japan passed a law permitting the J.S.D.F. to engage in military operations targeting foreign combatants, which raises important questions about the future role of its military outside of its own neighborhood, most importantly in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

Within the context of extremists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, who have killed several Japanese nationals over the years, and continue to threaten Japan’s interests in the Middle East and Africa, Tokyo is likely to turn to its security relations with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members to ensure security of strategically vital straits. To encourage such stability and protect busy trade routes, Japan seeks to assert a more active role in the region as a promoter of conflict resolution. Unquestionably, Japan, which sources much of its oil from Riyadh, has high stakes in Saudi Arabia maintaining stability and achieving its goals as laid out in Vision 2030.

Read it at Middle East Institute