OSAKA – Despite the latest outbreak of sectarian violence in the Middle East following the execution by Saudi Arabia of senior Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, experts on the region see minimal economic impact on Japan and believe Tokyo can play a mediator role.
Al-Nimr’s killing has sparked Shiite protests in the Middle East and across the globe, with the Saudi Embassy in Tehran being attacked and burned, as tensions surge between Sunnis and Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Bahrain and Pakistan.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday following a telephone conversation with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said both the U.S. and Japan have expressed concerns over the impact of deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran on stability in the Middle East. Both called for a peaceful solution through restraint and dialogue.
As the crisis continues to roil the region, experts say Tokyo can do more.
Osamu Miyata, head of the independent Center for Contemporary Islamic Studies in Japan, said that given Tokyo’s presence in the region, it could play a peacemaker role.
“Japan has deep connections to both countries,” Miyata explained. “It imports more than 30 percent of its oil from Saudi Arabia and, before the world placed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, more than 10 percent of its oil was coming from that country.”
“Given this history, and the fact that Iran doesn’t have a bad impression of Japan, there is ample room for Japan to play the role of arbitrator between the Saudis and the Iranians,” Miyata added.
In 2014, Japan imported about 80 percent of its oil and 30 percent of its natural gas from the Middle East. For oil in particular, the region is crucial, with Saudi Arabia supplying about 32 percent, the UAE 22.7 percent, Qatar 12.7 percent and Kuwait 7.3 percent.
Yet despite Japan’s heavy reliance on a region that has seen political instability surge since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, most experts do not see the turmoil greatly affecting oil prices.
“Ten or 20 years ago, there would have been a large spike in the price of crude oil if something happened in the Middle East, but that’s really not the case today,” said Shunji Hosaka, a senior researcher at The Institute of Energy Economics, JIME Center.
“While there could still be some impact, I don’t see the price of oil suddenly rising by huge amounts, to over $100 a barrel as was the case a number of years ago. At the moment, there has been little impact on the oil market.”