Japan and the GCC:

Towards a Comprehensive Partnership

February 28, 2024

Wednesday, February 28, 2024
6:00 pm GMT - 7:30 pm GMT
Four Seasons Hotel Doha


Japan and the GCC share a history of longstanding ties marked by cooperation across various crucial areas including energy and technology. To explore this evolving relationship, The Middle East Council of Global Affairs (ME Council) convened a panel of experts who touched on the historical foundations of Japan-GCC ties, the economic interdependence between both regions, and the evolving strategic and geopolitical considerations shaping this critical partnership. The panelists highlighted the partnership’s significance, emphasizing Japan’s dependence on the GCC for energy security and the GCC countries’ aspirations to draw on Japan’s successes in economic diversification efforts. Speakers also addressed challenges to strengthening Japan-GCC relations.

Kana Sato, senior researcher at Japan’s Institute of Energy Economics’ (IEEJ) JIME Center, initiated the discussion by mapping the history of Japan’s relationship with the GCC. Sato explained that the relationship was initially centered around energy security. To drive its economic recovery post World War II, Japan sought the Gulf’s energy supplies. However, the 1973 oil embargo underscored Japan’s vulnerability, prompting the country to reassess its energy policy and enhance relations with Arab states. For the Gulf, Japan served as a reliable technology and investment partner.

Over time, the partnership transcended energy, growing to include diverse sectors such as infrastructure and automotive technology. Japan’s infrastructure development expertise facilitated the modernization of the GCC’s infrastructure and presented lucrative opportunities for Japanese companies to expand into the region. Japanese companies led the development of some of the region’s most important infrastructure including public transportation systems, water desalination plants, and power generation facilities. Sato further added that the global shift towards renewable energy will be a crucial driver of Japan-GCC relations. The GCC and Japan can harness co-operation within hydrogen, ammonia, and low-carbon fuels, collectively working to craft viable energy transition strategies to navigate a complex energy landscape.

Following Sato’s discussion on the history and future of Japan-GCC relations, Kenny Kitamura, Japan’s Bank for International Cooperation’s Chief Representative for the Middle East, discussed Japan’s role in financing and facilitating various projects across the GCC. Over 50% of Qatar’s electricity supply is generated by Japanese companies. Kitamura added that Japanese companies also invested in numerous solar farm projects in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan. Looking ahead, he stressed opportunities for Japan-GCC cooperation in decarbonization and wider energy transition efforts where Japan can leverage its technological strengths. Japan’s humanitarian support across the region is also noteworthy; notably, Tokyo’s recent provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Reflecting on the impact of wider geopolitical dynamics on the GCC’s relationship with Japan, Abdullah Baabood, Chair of the State of Qatar for Islamic Area Studies at Japan’s Waseda University, touched on the political and security dimensions of Japan-GCC relations. While economic factors laid the foundation, Baabood argued that the Gulf’s pivot eastwards is expanding political links between both regions. Historically, Japan practiced quiet diplomacy in the Middle East, prioritizing energy security and remaining neutral in conflicts. However, its stance was tested by the ongoing war on Gaza when Japan initially signaled some degree of partiality towards the United States and its allies, drawing criticism from Arab nations. Subsequently, Japan tilted towards neutrality and joined calls for a ceasefire. Moving forward, Japan may need to pursue an independent foreign policy to navigate the region’s increasingly complex geopolitical picture. Baabood stressed that Japan’s neutral posture offers potential for fostering regional dialogue and promoting peace efforts, underscoring the strategic importance of Japan’s ties with the region.

In the following question and answer session, panelists delved into potential challenges to Japan-GCC relations. Panelists cited various challenges including generational shifts and their impacts on shaping Japan’s foreign policy priorities, the importance of reinforcing Japan’s soft power and cultural influence, and rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific. The audience also posed questions surrounding the role Japan can play in facilitating the GCC’s energy transition efforts. Panelists noted that while Japan can inform and facilitate the GCC’s diversification efforts, it also faces competition. China’s dominance in critical minerals, for instance, makes it an important energy transition partner for the Gulf states.


Fellow and Program Director


Kenny Kitamura
Chief Representative for the Middle East, Japan Bank for International Cooperation
Kana Sato
Senior Researcher, JIME Center, the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan (IEEJ)
Abdullah Baabood
Chair of the State of Qatar for Islamic Area Studies, Waseda University