(MENAFN - Arab News) Shigeru Endo Japan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia said that the Kingdom and Japan have seen a steady growth in bilateral relations and they are heading for diversification in areas like investments, human resources development and small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Arab News held an exclusive interview with him.
Q. How would you describe the relationship between Japan and Saudi Arabia?
A. "Japanese-Saudi relations are now at a peak of development since the establishment of our diplomatic ties in 1955. Our relations extend across economic, political, cultural, educational, medical and sports and are still growing.
"High-level political dialogue has been intensified. Japan's Minister for Foreign Affairs Koichiro Gemba visited the Kingdom early this year to undertake such dialogue.
"I am particularly pleased to note that the Imperial Family of Japan and the Royal Family of the Kingdom maintain a cordial relationship, which has been the basis for the friendship existing between us. The Crown Prince of Japan visited Saudi Arabia twice in 8 months to offer condolences on the passing of two crown princes, Prince Sultan and Prince Naif."
Q. What are Japan's activities in Saudi Arabia in the field of economy?
A."Japanese-Saudi relations in the economic field have been strengthened and diversified dramatically. Japan sources about 30 percent of total oil imports from the Kingdom, and we are also one of the major export markets for its manufactured goods, such as automobiles. However, after the exchange of visits reached a peak in 2006 and 2007, the overall relationship has reached a turning point.
"In the economic field an important step was taken to establish the Japanese-Saudi Industrial Cooperation Task Force. Since its inception, the Task Force has been instrumental in three areas: promoting investment in both countries, human resource development in Saudi Arabia, and assistance to help formulate SMEs policies in Saudi Arabia."
Q. What achievements of this cooperation task force can you elaborate on?
A."These include six investments in the Kingdom by Japanese companies. Isuzu Motors built an assembly line of middle sized trucks, Toyobo/Itochu invested in manufacturing a desalination membrane, Power
Systems/Marubeni Metals invested in the production of submarine cables, while Kubota invested in the production of special pipes for petrochemical plants. Index Holdings funded ICT content and Azbil Corporation financed the manufacturing and marketing of large-bore control valves.
"Many other Japanese companies are now seriously thinking to follow suit. Japan has become one of the top investors in Saudi Arabia.
"In human resource development, two vocational training institutes were newly established in Saudi Arabia in addition to the previously opened Saudi Japanese Automobile High Institute (SJAHI) in 2002. The institutes are called the Higher Institute for Plastics Fabrication (HIPF), and the Saudi Electronics and Home Appliances Institute (SEHAI). The number of the graduates from those three institutes combined has now exceeded 2,200.
In the field of SMEs, a group of Japanese experts produced a comprehensive report on policy recommendation to the Saudi Government in 2010. Follow- up activities are now under way in cooperation with the concerned Saudi authorities."
Q. What other areas of cooperation are there between the two countries?
A. "Outside the task force process, major investments have been made in fields such as petrochemical and refining. A Japanese company initiated a training program for Saudis to train elevator engineers.
"Other joint ventures include solar energy demonstration, water desalination, manufacturing sanitary ware, printing ink and pharmaceuticals. We are happy to note that many Saudis are becoming more interested in human resources development and SMEs.
"In September 2011, the two governments signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Water. Following the conclusion of the MoU, a comprehensive study on water in one of the provinces is now under way.
"Since the opening of its Riyadh office in 1994, the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) has been instrumental in helping Japanese companies interested in business and investment in Saudi Arabia.
"As a result, the number of Japanese companies doing business in the Kingdom " that used to be about 30 in the mid-1990s " now more than tripled in October 2011 to 92 companies in total, including resident representative offices and investment in process. The JETRO stands ready to assist Saudi companies as well."
Q. Is the bilateral relationship now entering a new phase?
A. "In the next 10 or 20 years, we need to sow good seeds of partnership in the fields exceeding the economic ones, such as education, health, culture, sports, dialogue of civilizations, youth exchange, and disaster management.
"Education is certainly the key to our common future that belongs to the youth of both countries. That is why we highly appreciate the initiative of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah on the youth exchange program launched in 2006."
Q. What can you tell about the youth exchange program?
A. "That is now gaining momentum. Currently about 450 Saudi youths are studying in Japan, mainly under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. The program was initiated following the visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah to Japan in 1998 when he was still the crown prince."
The initiative of King Abdullah coincided with the launching, in 2006, of the Global 30 program of the government of Japan. The Global 30 aims to encourage international students to come and study in Japan. Through the program, the government expects to attract 300,000 students from all corners of the world. In order to achieve the goal, 30 major universities in Japan have been selected as centers for internationalization.
"We hope that more Saudis will study in Japan and more Japanese students will come and study in the Kingdom."
Q. How did Saudi Arabia deal with the great earthquake that affected East Japan in March 2011?
A. "Residents of the areas that had been devastated by the earthquake visited the Kingdom in May this year. Leaders and people alike gave them a warm welcome during their stay in Riyadh.
"At every meeting, they expressed their gratitude for the Saudi assistance and encouragement and they also expressed their strong determination to recover from the disaster and to reconstruct their own communities to become better than before. Every encounter was so impressive and touching.
"On the international scene, there is a great potential to work together. We are both members of G20, which is playing a great role in the international community. Japan and Saudi Arabia can work together in helping other countries in need of assistance."