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ABU DHABI (Kyodo) Japan is increasing efforts to catch up with South Korea and China in a race to win civilian nuclear power projects in the Middle East.

Tokyo is weighing in to help Japanese firms land business in the region, where nuclear power plant projects are expected to surge as electricity demand there spikes with population growth and the rise of regional economies.

“Power demand will likely double from the current level in 2019 in Saudi Arabia and five other Persian Gulf states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council,” said Shigeharu Satake, a senior consultant with Nomura Research Institute Ltd.

The oil-rich nations of the Middle East are trying to promote nuclear power because oil prices have risen sharply, making it more profitable to export crude instead of using it as fuel to meet their own domestic power needs.

Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude futures topped $90 a barrel after sinking below $40 during the slump that followed the global banking crisis in autumn 2008.

On the first leg of his tour of the region from Jan. 7, trade minister Akihiro Ohata clinched a deal Saturday with Saudi Arabia on cooperation in nuclear power development in the country.

“The Saudis appear to be very much interested in Japan’s nuclear power technology,” Ohata told reporters after talks with Saudi government officials. “We intend to try to have Japan’s expertise employed when they build nuclear plants.”

Japanese firms are also setting their sights on Turkey and Jordan, which are expected to announce specific plans on the construction of nuclear power stations around spring.

“If we manage to get across to Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia about the safety and technological competence of Japan’s nuclear power technology, we can win contracts from those countries,” a trade ministry official said.

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