Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Saudi Arabia on Saturday for talks with King Salman amid a spike in tensions between the US and Iran.
Japan has sought to remain politically neutral as regional relations have become stretched following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. It has a deep alliance with the US, as well as ties with Iran, which until 2017 supplied Japan with about 5 per cent of its crude oil imports.
Security in the Arabian Gulf’s waters and for Middle East oil supplies is a national security priority for Japan, which imports nearly 90 per cent of its oil from the Middle East. Much of it is shipped from Arab Gulf states through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, which Iran partly controls.
Japan plans to deploy naval forces, a destroyer and two patrol planes off the coasts of Yemen and Oman to help protect its energy supplies, while keeping away from directly patrolling the Strait as the US does.
After arriving late on Saturday evening in Riyadh, Mr Abe was given a ceremonial welcome and hosted for lunch by King Salman on Sunday afternoon. He also met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. This marks Mr Abe’s third visit to Saudi Arabia as prime minister.
Saudi Arabia is Japan’s top supplier of crude oil, accounting for about 39 per cent of Japan’s overall crude imports. Iran is unable to sell its oil internationally as it once did because of US sanctions.
Over the summer, Japanese energy supplies became a target of rising tension when two cargo ships were mysteriously hit off the Gulf of Oman. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, although others that summer were blamed on Iran, which has denied involvement.
The attacks on Japanese-related cargo in June took place while Mr Abe was in Iran meeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani. He’d travelled to Tehran as an interlocutor for Mr Trump to ease tensions.
Concerns of a wider conflict have grown in recent days following a US air strike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s powerful military commander, Gen Qassem Suleimani. Iran retaliated, striking two military bases in Iraq where US troops are stationed, though no casualties were reported. Amid the chaos and heightened threats, Iran acknowledged on Saturday it had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing all 176 people aboard.
Mr Abe is scheduled to visit the UAE on Tuesday and Oman on Wednesday, before departing for Tokyo. In the UAE, he will meet Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and other leading Emirati figures. In Oman, he will hold talks with the country’s new ruler, Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who was named on Saturday following the death of longtime ruler Sultan Qaboos.
Mr Abe is travelling with a delegation that includes ministers responsible for boosting trade and business ties.
While in Saudi Arabia, he is scheduled to visit the desert region of Al Ula, which the kingdom is touting as a tourism destination, and will reportedly meet the Mohammed bin Salman there.