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Foreign Minister Yohei Kono may visit several Middle East nations, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, in early January if he keeps his Cabinet post after today’s planned reshuffle, Foreign Ministry sources said Monday.

The biggest objective of a trip to the resource-rich countries would be to strengthen Japan’s relations with them to ensure its energy security in the medium and long term, the sources said.

However, they said no formal decision has yet been made on whether the minister will even travel overseas at the start of the year.

Japan is heavily reliant on the Middle East for its oil needs, importing more than 80 percent of crude oil it consumes from the region, and from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE in particular. Persistently high crude oil prices on the global market in recent months have raised an awareness among Japanese government officials of the importance of forging stronger ties with the region.

The sources said that in addition to the three Persian Gulf nations, Kono may also visit Egypt and Israel to discuss the Middle East peace process, which has been in danger of collapsing since a fresh round of violent clashes began between Israeli forces and Palestinians in late September.

Embattled Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who recently survived a crucial no-confidence motion in the Diet, plans to reconfigure his five-month-old Cabinet today. Some key ministers, including Kono and Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, are expected to be retained in the reshuffle.

Kono’s trip to Saudi Arabia would be a fence-mending visit, with Kono becoming the first key Cabinet minister to visit the major oil exporter since the collapse early this year of negotiations between Tokyo and Riyadh on extending Arabian Oil Co.’s drilling rights in the Khafji oil field.

Arabian Oil is Japan’s largest oil producer with strong government backing. The Khafji oil field is located in the former neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Since the collapse of the Khafji negotiations, the Japanese government has taken pains to repair damaged ties with Saudi Arabia. For example, Japan dispatched former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto to Riyadh last month for an international conference of oil-exporting and -importing countries to show a strong Japanese desire for

better bilateral relations.

Although he stepped down as prime minister in the summer of 1998 to take responsibility for his Liberal Democratic Party’s defeat in an Upper House election, Hashimoto still wields strong influence over domestic and foreign policy.

He is chairman of the largest LDP faction and also serves as Mori’s supreme foreign policy adviser.

The negotiations over the Khafji oil field collapsed at the end of February after Tokyo rejected a Saudi demand to finance a $2 billion industrial railway project in the kingdom. Operations in the Saudi-controlled portion of the oil field were subsequently taken over by Riyadh.

For Japan, the loss of the Saudi drilling rights has made it even more important to secure drilling rights in the Kuwait-controlled portion. Contracts for Arabian Oil’s drilling rights in the Kuwait-controlled area are to expire in January 2003 if they are not extended.

Although Kono would not visit Tehran as part of his possible Middle East tour, Japan has already moved to strengthen ties with Iran, which supplies nearly 10 percent of Japanese oil imports.

In early November, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami made his first official visit to Tokyo. During his trip, the two governments signed an agreement that Iran would give Japanese firms preferential negotiating rights to develop southwest Iran’s Azadegan oil field, one of the country’s largest oil fields.

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