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Prime Minister Kishida Meets with Middle East Leaders, Agrees to Strengthen Cooperation on Green Energy

PM Kishida is using his time to push energy alternatives with Middle East leaders, whose countries' oil generates around one-third of Japan's energy needs.



Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman welcomes Prime Minister Kishida at a ceremony in Jeddah on July 16 (©Kyodo)

What is the best way to summarize Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's message to the powerful Middle East leaders of oil-rich countries during his current tour of the region?

I believe it boils down to an offer of a transactional relationship. 

In effect, Mr Kishida is saying: "Please keep selling your oil to Japan for now. However, in the future, let's do our best to switch to renewables. Because we can't in good conscience keep causing so much dreadful pollution."

Prime Minister Kishida shakes hands with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary General Jassim Al Budaiwi before their meeting at Jeddah on July 16. (© Kyodo)

Compromise Position

This is not the kind of message which would impress members of zealous pressure groups. They believe we should immediately end our reliance on fossil fuels, in order to avoid irreversible changes in the earth's climate system.

However, from the perspective of the Japanese government, it is an attempt to create a realistic compromise. Especially in the wake of the disruption to global fuel supplies following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Japan is not buying oil from Russia to punish it for violating international law. It is also boycotting Iranian oil, in compliance with United States and European sanctions.

And even though Japan is greener than it used to be, the country still uses oil to generate around one-third of its energy needs. Most of that comes from the Middle East. 

It is especially reliant on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They are two nations with which Japan has relatively little in common culturally, or in political terms.

Prime Minister Kishida meets with Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia at Jeddah on July 16. (©Kyodo)

Royal Welcome

Mr Kishida began his Middle East tour by meeting Saudi Arabia's leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah. They agreed on the importance of fossil fuels for the time being. But they also voiced a strong desire to embrace greener energies going forward.

During their short meeting, they signed 26 memorandums of cooperation, an impressive achievement. This trip came just a few days after Mr Kishida attended the NATO summit in Lithuania.

Saudi Arabia's energy minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, said that the relationship between his country and Japan is "characterized by solidity, reliability, and keenness of both sides to work together to ensure stability and development of the energy sector," the Saudi Press Agency reported.  


The energy minister also urged Japanese companies to invest in Saudi Arabia, including in renewable energy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping poses for a group photo at the summit held in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, on December 9, 2022. (©Kyodo)

Rivalry with China

China's President Xi Jinping went to Saudi Arabia in December 2022 and regards the royal family as his friends. Saudi forces conduct joint military exercises with China's People's Liberation Army.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman also recently traveled to Paris to meet the French president, Emmanuel Macron. While there, he attended a climate finance summit in France. He has been invited to London later this year. 

This trip has been criticized by human rights groups. The Guardian newspaper says Saudi Arabia put 196 people to death in 2022. That is the highest number of annual executions in the country in the last 30 years. 

Polly Truscott, Amnesty International United Kingdom's foreign policy adviser, said: "There must be no question of the UK rolling out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman. Or of the Saudi ruler being able to use this visit to rehabilitate himself on the world stage."

Mr Kishida did not say anything about the Prince visiting Tokyo. However, he did say at one point that "Japan will always be with you for the realization of social and economic reform."

Prime Minister Kishida poses for a commemorative photo after receiving a COP28 wristband from UAE President Mohammed on July 17 in Abu Dhabi. (©Kyodo)

Preparing for COP28

Next on the agenda was a trip to see President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in the United Arab Emirates. Mr Kishdia said: "Japan values its relationship with the UAE which is also a strategic partner. And I myself would like to establish a closer personal relationship with the president."

As in Saudi Arabia, there was a joint declaration focused on decarbonization. 

The United Arab Emirates holds the presidency of the United Nations climate change conference known as COP28. The conference opens in November. Senior members of the Japanese government will attend that event, as will representatives of major Japanese businesses. Among them are Japan's sogo shosha trading houses. These companies have good relationships with Middle Eastern countries stretching back many decades.

In fact, my sources tell me that the leaders of the sogo shosha are the guides who are helping Mr Kishida navigate his way around the Middle East this week. It is a notoriously tricky part of the world to understand. However, for Japan, it is imperative to do business there. The wheels of the domestic economy continue to turn, powered for the foreseeable future by oil. 


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Mr Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.


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