Japan: A silent partner



Abdulateef Al-Mulhim

Published — Saturday 15 December 2012

Last update 15 December 2012 8:00 am

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Last week, a joint project was launched between Saudi Arabia and Isuzu Company to manufacture around 25,000 trucks annually by the year 2017. The project will be in the industrial complex in Dammam. The project marks a very important turn in the Saudi-Japanese economic cooperation. The inauguration of the project was attended by Commerce and Industry Minister Tawfiq Al-Rabiah, Saudi Ambassador to Japan Abdulaziz A. Turkistani and other Japanese officials. Such project was long overdue. But, why didn’t the Saudi-Japanese technological transfer start earlier?
Japan is only about the size of the American state of Montana. Its area covers around 146,000 sq. miles with a population of around 125 million people. This makes it one of the most densely populated countries in the world. And even though Japan is an archipelago of thousands of islands, only four islands are well known to the outside world. The main four islands are Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Knowing the names of these islands was a must during my middle school years when we studied geography. Historians say that Japan was the only country that was forced by a foreign power to open up to the world. In 1854 an American fleet consisting of four ships led by Commodore Matthew Perry pressured Japan to open up to the West.
Later on, Japan adopted Western style government and was exposed to some of the American styles of life. An example is a sport called baseball. In 1872 an American professor with the name Horace Wilson was hired by the Japanese government to modernize the Japanese education system. Professor Wilson was a civil war veteran and he didn’t only help modernize the education system, but he introduced baseball to the Japanese. The Japanese didn’t only learn how to play baseball; they simply mastered it and perfected it. And that is exactly what Japan is all about. Japanese don’t only do or make things look good, they simply make anything a state of the art. I have never met anyone from any nationality who is not an admirer of Japan. People outside Japan always ask, how did the Japanese do it? In 1945, at the end of WWII, Japan was a country in ruins. The war and the two nuclear bombs destroyed the buildings, but they didn’t destroy spirits of the Japanese.
Seven years later, in 1952, Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty and after that the Japanese were going full speed ahead. Its industry became a trademark of quality around the world after it was virtually unknown. During the first American oil shortage in October 1973, Japan was in the American news and the talk of the town was about Japanese fuel-efficient cars. At that time many Americans never heard of the name, Toyota. As time passed, Japan became the second largest auto exporter, the second largest economy and the second most advanced country in technology in the world.
So, how about the Saudi-Japanese official relations? Some references say that the official relations between Saudi Arabia and Japan didn’t materialize until 1955, but there were contacts between the two countries since beginning of the 1930s. And from the 1950s, Saudi Arabia became one of the main trading partners with Japan and Japanese cars and gadgets are in every home in Saudi Arabia. The most notable economic relation between the two countries was the presence of the Japanese-Arabian Oil Company in Alkhafji, Saudi Arabia. The irony of this particular oil contract is that it wasn’t good public relation for the conduct of the Japanese company in regard to relation with the Saudi society. They were living in total isolation and there wasn’t any real contact with the Saudi society. But, in the beginning of the 1960s, it was good time for Japanese car dealers and Japanese electronic outlets, which were opened in every Saudi city. And lately, many projects were awarded to Japanese companies all over the Kingdom.
The Saudi-Japanese relation is of strategic importance, but, why it is very seldom that we hear about the activities which would be associated with such strong relations? It is very seldom that we hear about a high profile delegation from either country visiting the other side. And when it is in the news, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. The cultural exchanges between the two countries are very rare and tourism is almost non-existent.
Saudi Arabia had seen more than one economic boom and we could have been able to learn from the Japanese art of technological transfer. There were (are) many infrastructure projects in Saudi Arabia that could have used the Japanese know-how. Saudi Arabia has many big cities that needed public transportations and the distances between some cities in Saudi Arabia are more than one thousand kilometers with cities that has millions of people and we could have adopted the Japanese experience in how to build high-speed trains between major cities and adopt the metro transportation system within the cities. Also, Japan has a very advanced system in managing the sewage projects with state of the art environment protection procedures. Also, Japan had/has a unique education system which we can adopt in Saudi Arabia. But, we have never seen the kind of exchange of ideas in education, economic or health sectors.
Many international analysts see the Saudi-Japanese relation very strong and strategic, but it is only in the form of buying ready to use products. We pay the money and we get a Toyota and we spend billions of dollars for electric generators and the Japanese install them, and that is it. There are many ways to improve the relations between Saudi Arabia and Japan and get the most out of it for the benefit of the people of the two countries. There are many Saudis who want to see the Japanese technological achievements being adopted after the end of every mega project. This is why I always call Japan, the most important silent partner. We see the Japanese projects, but we don’t see the Japanese and they don’t see us.

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