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Most Saudis prefer Japan as Middle East mediator

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (AFP)
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R) greets Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the G20 Osaka Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. (AFP)
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12 Jan 2020 03:01:43 GMT9
12 Jan 2020 03:01:43 GMT9

Caline Malek Dubai

More than half of Saudis polled as part of a recent YouGov survey said they view Japan as the most neutral mediator of a possible peace deal between Israel and Palestine.

Japan, at 51 percent, led the Middle East’s former biggest powerbroker and mediator, the US, by a hefty 20 percent.

The study, which was commissioned by Arab News, was intended to learn more about Arabs’ perception of Japan on topics as wide ranging as culture, society and economy.

YouGov interviewed 3,033 Arabic speakers, aged 16 years or above, residing in 18 different countries across the Arab world.

Among other Saudi Arabia-related findings, 38 percent believe the emperor of Japan signs the laws, while the numbers who believe that this power lies with the prime minister, the president and the supreme court were 35, 21 and 6 percent respectively.

The results showed that 64 percent of Saudis correctly identified Japan as belonging to the G20, while 59 percent identified it is a member of the G7.

However, 33 percent wrongly said Japan was a member of the UN Security Council.

The majority of respondents were positive about the political relationship between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Japan: 38 percent of Saudis were supportive, 20 percent were neutral, 40 percent answered positively and only one percent negatively.

According to Cyril Widdershoven, director of VEROCY, a Dutch consultancy that advises on investments, energy and infrastructure risks and opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the main takeaway was that Saudis assess the position of Japan on the basis of their own system of the distribution of powers.

“As Japan officially is still led by an emperor, Saudis perhaps consider its political system to be royal family led,” he said.

“It is also hard for most Saudis, and in general Arabs in the region, to understand the mechanics of the trias politika system, in which there is a clean and clear power separation between royals, political parties and the judicial system — and the implications of this for the legal and financial systems.”

He said that, in general, people tend to assess other countries’ systems through the lens of their own cultural, political and economic structures, and consider them identical if they appear somewhat similar to their own.

“Furthermore, a democratic system — such as Japan’s — is not a fixed and clear-cut system. It depends on certain arrangements made according to the laws and traditions of the particular country,” he told Arab News.

“It is normal therefore that people don’t take all of this into account. The overall power position of Japan, especially when looking as a Saudi, is somewhat overestimated.”

The main reason for this, Widdershoven says, is that there is a lot of MENA, and especially GCC, media interest in Asian powers such as Japan, and also China and India, because of their status as headline newsmakers.

“Ecocomic and trade relations with these countries are very strong. This produces a general tendency among Arabs to view them as major world powers, something that is not based on facts — except in the case of China — but on information they have received,” Widdershoven said.

“Additionally, Japanese products are major attractions in the Arab world. So the perceived role of Japan is influenced by many different factors except the actual global geopolitical status of Japan.

“Economic power and influence are not the same as hard military and geopolitical power.”

Widdershoven expects the relationship between Japan and Saudi Arabia to grow stronger in the coming years, on the back of increasing investments in innovation, finance, and defense technology.

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