• JIJI, Kyodo, Staff Report


Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expressed full support for Japan’s dispatch of a Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer and patrol aircraft to the Middle East, during a meeting with visiting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Sunday.

At the talks, held in Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia’s northwest, Abe sought Riyadh’s understanding and cooperation for the MSDF mission in the sea off Yemen and Oman, which Tokyo says is aimed at gathering information to ensure the safe navigation of ships in the region, including those owned or operated by Japan.

In response, the crown prince, who has taken charge of domestic politics for aging King Salman, said that his country fully supports Japan’s efforts. Abe and the crown prince confirmed that Japan and Saudi Arabia will work together for stability in the Middle East and safe navigation in the region.

Japan is sending SDF personnel and assets to enhance its own intelligence-gathering capabilities in areas that include the Gulf of Oman and part of the Arabian Sea.

But the Strait of Hormuz near Iran, a key shipping lane, is out of scope for the mission, as Japan wants to draw a clear distinction between its own deployment and a U.S.-led maritime security initiative that Tokyo has not joined.

Two MSDF P-3C patrol planes that have been engaged in anti-piracy patrol missions off Somalia are set to begin their Middle East mission later this month, while a Takanami destroyer operated by the force is slated to leave for the region on Feb. 2.

On growing U.S.-Iran tensions that have led to an exchange of military strikes, Abe said an armed conflict in the Middle East, including Iran, would greatly affect peace and stability not only within the region but also elsewhere in the world.

Noting that any further escalation in the situation must absolutely be avoided, Abe emphasized that Japan would patiently continue making maximum diplomatic efforts to help ease the tensions and stabilize the regional situation.

The Saudi crown prince said that he completely agreed with Abe’s views, adding that dialogue between the countries concerned is crucial and that Riyadh will further enhance its own efforts.

They affirmed that relevant countries should join forces to stabilize the Middle East situation and de-escalate the tensions.

Earlier this month, a U.S. airstrike killed Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, prompting Tehran to retaliate by firing dozens of ballistic missiles on two Iraqi bases being used by U.S. forces.

Stability in the Middle East is critical for Japan, which depends on the region for more than 80 percent of its crude oil imports. The crown prince vowed to continue paying utmost attention to the stability of crude oil supplies from Saudi Arabia to Japan.

Photos tweeted by Abe’s official Twitter account Sunday local time showed both Abe and the crown prince grinning as they met.

It was not clear if Abe had broached the issue of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi during the meeting with the crown prince, though he did not do so during their meeting last June.

The crown prince has been dogged by questions about Khashoggi’s death at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

A U.N. report has called the killing a “premeditated extrajudicial execution” and said there is “credible evidence” suggesting the crown prince’s involvement.

The Japanese government has called the killing “extremely regrettable.” Abe is trying to mediate between Washington and Tehran using Japan’s close alliance with the United States and its long-standing friendship with Iran.

The prime minister was visiting Saudi Arabia on the first leg of a five-day Middle East tour that started Saturday. After Saudi Arabia, he is scheduled to visit the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni power and major rival of Shiite Iran, apparently hopes to prevent the regional tensions from boiling over. It is a member of the U.S.-led coalition for ensuring maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz.

Abe and the crown prince also affirmed close cooperation between their countries for the success of a series of Group of 20 gatherings, including a summit meeting, set to be hosted by Saudi Arabia this year. Japan hosted last year’s meetings of the world’s top 20 advanced and emerging economies.

Earlier on Sunday, Abe held a meeting with King Salman.

They exchanged views on the Middle East situation, aiming to defuse tensions between the United States and Iran.

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