Change of prime minister leaves Saudi Arabia untended

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Where would Keizo Obuchi have been during the forthcoming Golden Week holiday period if a stroke had not left him in a coma?

Not in a Tokyo hospital bed, of course.

As prime minister, Obuchi would have been in Russia for talks with President-elect Vladimir Putin on Saturday, the first day of Golden Week. There is a good chance his subsequent destinations would have included Saudi Arabia, where he would have attempted to mend relations in the wake of tensions that are the result of unsuccessful negotiations over a Japanese firm’s continued access to a Saudi oil field.

Yoshiro Mori, Obuchi’s successor, is also planning to visit Russia during the holiday week, but he is then going on to all the other Group of Eight member countries for get-acquainted sessions with their leaders ahead of the G8 summit in Okinawa Prefecture in late July. The G8 comprises the United States, Canada, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Russia.

According to government sources, until Obuchi’s hospitalization, three options had been considered for his destination following Russia: Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, India and Pakistan, or a couple of Western European countries.

Government officials in charge of Middle Eastern affairs appear to be particularly frustrated by the sudden change in Japan’s leadership because they had hoped that Obuchi would visit Riyadh during Golden Week on a fence-mending mission.

“It was a miscalculation for us,” one such government official said, requesting anonymity.

“Mr. Obuchi was more concerned than any other ministers in his Cabinet about Japan-Saudi relations. If he had been healthy, I think there is an 80 percent chance that he would have visited Saudi Arabia,” the official said.

Relations between Tokyo and Riyadh have been soured by the collapse at the end of February of negotiations on extending Arabian Oil Co.’s oil-drilling rights in the Khafji oil field in the former neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The oil negotiations collapsed after Japan rejected a Saudi demand to finance the $2 billion industrial railway project in the kingdom. As a result, Arabian Oil, Japan’s biggest oil producer, lost the oil-drilling rights it had had for nearly four decades, and operations in the Saudi-controlled portion of the Khafji oil field were taken over by Riyadh.

There is a general consensus within the government that Japan had no choice but to accept the loss of Arabian Oil’s oil concessions in the Khafji field because it could not agree to use a huge amount of its own taxpayers’ money for what it believes would have been an unprofitable project.

At the same time, however, government officials agree on the need for Japan to maintain friendly ties with Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest oil exporter — in the medium and long term. Japan is heavily reliant on the Middle East for oil.

Since the collapse of the oil negotiations with Saudi Arabia, the government has been considering measures to minimize damage to bilateral ties. Obuchi’s trip to Riyadh during Golden Week would have been the first — and most important — step toward that goal.