Ismail Serageldin


Japan and the Arab World: A New Strategic Alliance

 25/08/2005 | Vienna, Austria


1. Introduction:

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Half a world away, half a lifetime ago, President John F. Kennedy spoke of world peace, he said:

“For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet.  We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Those words are as pertinent today as they were over forty years ago.   In the post 9/11 world, it is important that we all remember our common humanity, and build a new basis for common understanding and mutual respect.  This will not be easy to achieve given the enormous engagement of the US in its “war on terror”, and the profound changes occurring at an ever faster pace in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Japan has a crucial role to play here.  It is the strongest and staunchest ally of the US, and it has excellent economic relations with the Arab world, and the makings of an excellent political relationship as well.

I could in this speech have focused on the economics of trade and the potentialities of investment.  But rather than reel off dry statistics that you doubtless can assimilate much more effectively from the written reports at your disposal, I prefer to focus on the vision of a changed political role for Japan in the world and in the Arab region, and how this political role combines with the economic relations using them as a foundation for the political movement and at the same time making them stronger and more robust.  For in the end, it is impossible to continue to think of Japan in a uni-dimensional way that focuses exclusively on its economic might, its role as an investor or as an aid donor.  There must be multi-layered relations between Japan and the Arabs. I believe that these relations will show increasing complexity reflecting Japan’s real entry into the global scene as a major power, something that is long overdue, and the enormous changes that are taking place in the Arab World today .

To discuss this complex and changing reality, allow me to cover the following points:

First: the changing world scene;

Second: The Arab world today, with special attention to Iraq.

Third: a strategy for reform:

Fourth: Terrorism, for we must address the realities of this global scourge; and

Finally: A recapitulation of what Japan could do in these critical times of transition and transformation.

2.  A Changing World

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen.

Our world is in the throes of rapid transformation, with a future only dimly perceived. The post-war order is creaking and requires retooling from the security council to the Bretton Woods institutions. Yet the political will to forge the new multilateralism is lacking. Europe is busy constructing its wonderful new edifice, and the US seems intent on pursuing its own course. Yet the wisdom of the architects of the post-world-war II system needs to be reflected as we enter into the new century. We recognize our common humanity, but shy away from the consequences of accepting such a view. For surely we cannot accept that half of humanity is ill-fed, ill-housed, wracked by disease and blighted by ignorance.

Our new world is emerging by the action and the inaction of the powerful. It is one that could make a difference for so many if the powerful choose to act in those areas where they will empower the weak and marginalized to become the producers of their own bounty and welfare, not the recipients of charity or the beneficiaries of aid… Replacing despair with hope, anger with love, enmity with friendship, conflict with cooperation. Yet the world that is emerging is not like that. It is one where hate and suspicion have overtaken the urge to altruism and collaboration, where the clash of civilizations is advanced as a substitute for the cold war, and where the misdeeds of a few are projected onto guilt by the many. Stereotypes abound:

A powerful, hegemonic west, that insists on seeing us through stereotypical eyes: The Arabs and Muslims are intolerant and prone to violence and terrorism, Sub-Saharan Africa is a problem case, riven with war and littered with the corpses of well-intentioned development efforts.

For us, the arrogance of power has blinded the west to its own record of misdeeds in our region, and today, the west, smug in its rich self assurance, insensitive to our predicament, perpetuates the very conditions that prevent us from rising to claim our rightful place among the nations of the world.

We must strive to challenge these prejudices and stereotypes, on both sides. I believe that we reformers in the Arab world will do our part and we stretch out our hands in friendship, confident that – as president Kennedy said – the creation of a new world order is in the interest of all. 

The Arab societies of today want to define themselves in terms of the present and the future, but still retaining their links to their heritage, without remaining captives of the past.   But many in the Arab world -- as in many developing countries -- fear the spread of "westernization", and want to assert their separate cultural identity. 

In this context, Japan has a special role to play, First because Japan must take its rightful place among the most important nations of the world, and second because Japan is uniquely well-placed to play a critical role in breaking this dichotomy by the power of its example: a different and third way.

It is difficult to imagine that the conditions that prevailed at the end of the second world war, over 60 years ago, should continue to prevail today.  That Japan should continue to be an economic giant without a real political role is unthinkable.

Japan has shown the world more than once that it was capable of miraculous achievements.  First in responding to the challenge of the west represented by commodore Perry and his gunboats with the Meiji restoration and the most outstanding modernization program the world had ever seen.  Japan became a world power in less than four decades and took its place at the forefront of the global powers at the dawn of the 20th century.

Again, after the destruction of world war II, Japan arose, phoenix-like, from the ashes to stage a miraculous second modernization program and became the second largest economy in the world.

In both cases, Japan succeeded in giving the world a stunning example of modernization without westernization.  While Japan mastered the technology of the time and pushed the envelope of industry and achievement, it remained quintessentially Japanese.  These are relevant matters at a time when the Arab and Muslim worlds are struggling to modernize and retain their identities.

Japan that has achieved so much must come out of the shadow of the US in its international relations.  Certainly it must remain the staunchest of allies with the US, but it must have its own independent voice, and articulate its own policy. In so doing it will help build bridges between estranged friends in the US and the Arab world.  It will achieve what others cannot achieve because of the legacy of their past entanglements in the Arab region.

This independent voice must be about more than economic strategies for exports or trade deals, it involves a position where aid and trade have a link to an ongoing, evolving foreign strategy to win friends, influence people and build robust strategic alliances that advance Japan’s own agenda by finding the common ground with the agenda of others (in this case the Arabs).

I firmly believe that this common ground exists and can be the basis of a new, enhanced role for Japan in the Arab world.



What makes the Arab world "Arab"? A shared heritage and history for one thing.  Islam is an essential component of that, but not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs.   In fact, the vast majority of Muslims are not Arabs.   A shared language, Arabic, and a shared sensibility is certainly part of the equation.  Recall also that inter-Arab labor mobility has been very significant in the years that succeeded the oil boom of the 1970s, and has marked the coming of age of the now-dominant generation. Above all, the empathy is real.  For many Arabs, the issues of Palestine and of Iraq are not distant foreign policy issues, they are deeply felt “family” issues.  People react as they would for the catastrophes that befall members of one extended family.

But are there other elements that unify them?  Yes.  The Arabs are a proud people, and today, more than ever, they yearn for freedom, self-rule, democracy and the rule of law.   Long postponed in the name of national and international imperatives, reform will no longer be denied.  The forces of change are challenging the forces of stasis on every Arab society.  A younger generation is pushing open the gates to the labor force and to public life.  Recall that over 50% of the Arab World is under 25 years old.   And that, more than anything has put the Arab Reform Agenda front and center in every Arab capital.   

The US avowed and declared intent to promote regime change throughout the Arab world has certainly helped focus national and international attention on the issue, and has helped the simmering pots to boil.  And yes, it has certainly removed the evil and tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussain and his cronies, opening the way for a new generation of Iraqis to take charge of their own destinies, and to breathe – for the first time in decades – the air of freedom.  But, it would be disingenuous to ignore the very real problems that remain in Iraq, or to claim that the very considerable achievements, especially with the remarkable success of the January 30th, 2005 election, have taken Iraq out of the woods.  Much remains to be done.   In every country, we need truly national champions of the reform to step up to the plate.  Reform, credibly articulated from within, not perceived as the artifact of external forces and their puppets or the result of forced intrusions, is reform that will take root and succeed over the long haul. 

I submit that Japan has a vital interest in ensuring that such reform occurs, and that the Arab world becomes not only a stable place but a real ally of Japan’s international role.  It would be an alliance based on mutual interest and mutual respect.  For that to happen, however, Japan should adopt an economic, political and social strategy geared to recognize the enormous differences in the situations of various countries in the Arab world and yet ensure a coherence in these strategies, for that will strengthen bilateral relations and add a regional umbrella strategy that will further buttress the bilateral relations.    This will also enhance Japan’s position in the Arab world.

Allow me to articulate some elements of such a strategy, starting with Iraq and Palestine and then moving onto some of the other issues.


For most people in the Arab and Muslim world, it was not support for Saddam Hussain that prompted their misgivings.  It was a poorly argued case, coming on top of a long-standing perception of victimization and of double standards (especially in the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis).  The case was poorly argued in terms of justifications:

  • in terms of the “Axis of Evil” logic, where North Korea would have been a more logical theater of intervention;
  • in terms of the Middle East, where all agreed on the urgency of settling the Palestinian-Israeli impasse rather than dealing with Iraq;
  • in terms of the UN Security Council, where it is difficult to argue that to respect the Council’s resolutions, one should go to war despite the views of the Security Council.

Finally, the case was unconvincing in its presentation of the immediacy of the threat posed by WMD, or of the desirable post-war unfolding of events in Iraq.  All this is painfully obvious today.

Against that background, and with due attention to the enormous suffering inflicted on the Iraqi people by years of sanctions and misrule, it is no surprise that appreciation for the US is at an all-time low.  It is even fair to say that we have a very serious situation developing across the Arab and Muslim homelands, where millions of people are increasingly alienated from the West generally and the United States specifically.  Millions of people feel victimized by an arrogant and insensitive West, flaunting its power and wealth, forcing upon us an unjust world order and resorting to force of arms to impose its vision of economy and society.  Equity, justice, human rights and democracy are seen as empty words and hypocritical slogans to provide cover for crass commercial interests and political expediency.  The high moral purpose that the West generally and the United States specifically uses to define its sense of national identity and global purpose is reviled.  It is a dangerous situation where hate is replacing friendliness, where despair is replacing hope.   Terrorism can find many recruits in such a situation.

On the other hand, in the United States, and in Europe, the predominantly Christian populations are increasingly looking with suspicion on their native Muslim populations, and are becoming more averse to immigration despite the need for younger workers to help shoulder the growing burdens of an aging population.  Instead of trying to understand each other, a gulf is developing between the United States and Europe and between both and the rest of the world.  Nowhere is this growing gulf of suspicion and misunderstanding more emphatic and more dangerous than between the US and the Arab and Muslim worlds.

I am not an alarmist, but any person committed to the welfare of humanity cannot look upon this growing gulf of misunderstanding, suspicion and hate without questing for the source that triggered it, and for the means to overcome it.  We are destined to live with each other, and must work together for a better future for our children. 

Here Japan can play a role.  It is not seen as directly party to either side.  It can become the common friend that can help overcome the alienation and bitterness between the US and its Arab allies.  We need to talk to each other, to understand each other.  We need to replace the cycles of hatred and violence with openness and understanding. We need to create a true culture of peace by our commitment to knowledge, understanding and a real dialogue of cultures. 

We all reject and condemn terrorism of any kind, and call for international action to promote peace and stability based on justice and participation.   It is absolutely essential that transition in Iraq be successful and that security be established under a representative elected Iraqi government.  No one can accept failure in this endeavor, whatever the misgivings about the intervention of the US.  

Japan is already committed to working with important Arab states on the reconstruction of Iraq.  However, the expansion of such programs remain hostage to  improved security.  In the meantime, Japan – in collaboration with Egypt and others – should expand humanitarian assistance and, as soon as the security situation permits, accelerate rebuilding the basic infrastructure, the “lifeline infrastructure”, in Iraq

In the meantime, Japan and Egypt and possibly others can arrange for training Iraqis outside of Iraq on the key responsibilities that such a massive reconstruction effort will require.   The waiting time should be used to assemble teams design strategies  and organize deployment strategies so that the day the security situation allows it, the rapid deployment of the human resources backed up by significant technology and financial means will result in a rapid and visible achievement on the ground, which in turn will help stabilize the situation further.


Palestine remains the single most important problem that confronts the Arabs and the World.  It is almost impossible for non-Arabs and non-Muslims to understand the depth of feeling that the Palestinian situation engenders.  It generates utmost feelings of hurt and hatred, of injustice and powerlessness, of an unfair insensitive world that is sanctimonious about the values of justice and democracy but abides the worst transgressions against human rights and a people’s right to self-determination.

It is not to justify terrorism.  For terrorism must be condemned in all its forms, everywhere and whoever its perpetrators.  There is no justification of any kind that can be advanced for terrorism anywhere anytime.  It is an affront to the most basic of human rights and the most fundamental of human values.  But surely we must accelerate peace process and move towards the creation of a Palestinian state and the final status negotiations.  Young Palestinians must see the possibilities of a future different than their present.

Japan is not a member of the Quartet, but it can do much to bring a new dimension to this enterprise.  Japan has the goodwill of all parties, and can help lubricate the process of movement towards a final agreement by assisting the rebuilding of the PA’s infrastructure that has been severely depleted, if not totally destroyed in the last four years.

Japan’s financial help here can come as the lubricant for settlement, especially if it is packaged as a complement to a multi-lateral package reminiscent of what happened immediately after the Oslo peace accords in 1993.



a program funded by Japan, is likely to have enormous goodwill effects in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria in addition to Yemen, Sudan and Djibouti.<span>  This is not impossible.  Note how a very successful program has been launched between Japan and Egypt in the provision of medical training for humanitarian assistance to Iraq.





A role for Japan:

So what can Japan do?  I suggest a multi-pronged program to promote human resources, nurture democracy and advance science and technology, the essential pillars of economic growth in the coming decades.  The program would cover:

Support the reformers: by supporting the key elements that make reform possible.  Remember that reform, like development, is like a tree: you nurture its growth by feeding its roots not by pulling on its branches.

So instead of getting involved in the internal political processes of the countries, try to support the emerging civil society with more meetings, exchange programs, and training programs in Japan or funded by Japan in the countries concerned.

Education and training that is focused on the new skills is sorely lacking in the Arab world. Special programs for such training would be natural areas for the Japanese government and Japanese business to become involved.

Promote the development of platforms for the new S&T in Egypt and some other Arab countries that have the capacity to engage in joint ventures.   For example, joint ventures in Egypt could yield interesting returns on developing a local base for areas like biotechnology or bio-informatics where the gene-environment interaction is important and the Egyptian connection can also help in marketing in Africa (AU, COMESA) and in Europe.

Above all, such actions that promote the socio-economic development of the region while creating opportunities for its youth, with a special attention to the role of women.  This will undoubtedly help a smoother transition and create greater stability in these countries.  It will gain Japan many long-term friends.  And it will assist these countries in their complex dual fight to modernize their societies and fight the scourge of global terrorism.

5.  Terrorism:

No discussion of the role of Japan in the Arab world would be complete without a discussion of the calamity and curse of terrorism.

Terrorism is not new.  But there are reasons to believe that it is becoming more important as a destabilizing force in the world today.  The conditions of failed states or conditions of widespread anarchy (Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon during the civil war) allow terrorist networks to develop and then strike out their branches in cells located in the relatively open societies of the west.  The increasing damage that can be done by terrorists today is being enhanced by at least ten objective reasons. These account for the rising importance of global terrorism as a scourge of the new century:

The increasing density of human settlements.   With so many people in such small geographic areas, the likely impact of a terrorist act in terms of claiming lives and maiming people is considerably larger today than it was three decades ago.

The increasing value of property, makes that comparable catastrophes a generation or two ago would cause much greater losses in monetary terms today.  This is evident in the increasing value of the damage caused by hurricanes in the US and by floods in Japan.

The availability of modern mass transport, both nationally and internationally,  means that both terrorists can move around much more easily and much less noticeably than they could half a century ago, and that the vehicles of such transport --  planes, trains and underground rail --  are themselves potent targets of terrorist attacks.  This was sadly shown in 9/11, Madrid and London.

The specific vulnerability of certain extremely important industries to disruption by terrorist acts.  This includes petroleum exports (witness Iraq), Tourism (Bali and Egypt), and banking… for capital, honest capital, is notoriously cowardly: it moves away from perceived danger to safe havens elsewhere.

Globalization and the information and communication revolution make it very easy for terrorists to plan their activities halfway around the globe, finance it from another part of the planet, assemble to strike somewhere and be gone to the four corners of the world within hours.  The permeable world of the internet, international mobile phones and 24 hours a day global financial transactions coupled with easy travel require an unprecedented level of cooperation between the police and intelligence agencies of the countries of the civilized world.

The widespread availability of enormous amounts of weapons and explosives of all types for clandestine sale all over the world, especially after the end of the cold war, makes it likely that terrorists with even moderate funding can acquire very lethal weapons indeed.

The extreme effectiveness of small light weapons that can be moved easily against large unprotected civilian targets adds considerably to the risk of successful attacks.  A shoulder fired Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) can easily hit a plane on takeoff or landing.  Well aimed, it is equally deadly against a bus or a train.

New forms of terrorism such as cyber attacks against our data banks, the essential tissue of our hyper-digitized societies, keeps cyber-security experts in a constant race against the potentially lethal attacks of well informed and well placed terrorists.

Nuclear proliferation and the availability of large quantities of weapons grade material make the need for additional security measures on the stocks of such materials extremely important for global security.

Bioterrorism, is a real possibility.  Notwithstanding the weakness of the anthrax attacks in the US and the Sarin attack in Japan, a well-placed and well-timed release of an airborne lethal pathogen with a significant incubation period of even a few days makes its control very difficult.   Old enemies like small pox and new deadly biological pathogens and the risk of epidemics or pandemics they can cause, cannot be ignored.

But above all, there is the ideological fervor of the suicide bomber.  It is far harder to guard against the danger of a killer who kills himself with his victims than it is to guard against one who is planning to escape the scene of the crime.  This phenomenon, needs tackling at the base of the recruiting and indoctrination that feeds the terrorist ranks as much as at the stage of the attempted terrorist actions.

So what can be done?  I believe that Japan should help the fight against terrorism in three ways:

  • Assist in solving the political problem of Palestine, as I explained before.
  • Assist in the development of the economic opportunities for a rising tide of young people by promoting joint ventures in the middle income countries and supporting home-grown reform efforts.
  • Assist in the creation of a multilateral international framework aimed at increased security, prosperity and well-being.  Japan has a credibility in this that no other major country enjoys, for it does not have historical baggage from earlier dealings with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

6.  Conclusions:

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The time for Japan to assert its global role is long overdue.  Japan must not only become a permanent member of the security council, it must develop a well-heard voice on the global questions of our time.  After having shown its enormous achievement as an economic leader, Japan must play a greater political leadership role.  This will not be at the expense of its well established economic relations, but it will be an important complement and reinforcing factor.

In the Arab world, there are the makings of a natural alliance.  Not only do economic interests mesh nicely, but also there is no historical baggage of past conflict to complicate the relationship.  Japan has a lot of goodwill that could be built upon to create  a strong strategic partnership that would manifest itself in a range of regional and international issues.

In the region, Japan could play a special role to assist in the problem of Palestine, including assisting the Palestinian Authority rebuild its governance infrastructure and to receive the inputs required for a fast and visible return to normalcy in the territories brought back under its control is essential.

The reconstruction of Iraq requires much improved security.  But Japan can continue and increase its joint humanitarian program with Egypt in training medical personnel and can train Iraqis outside of Iraq in preparation for a rapid deployment for the reconstruction of the basic infrastructure as soon as the security situation allows a real presence on the ground.

Long-term stability in the region will occur only if there is peace based on justice, and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved.  In addition, Long-term socio-economic development that creates meaningful employment opportunities for youth is essential in a predominantly young Arab World, where as many as 80 million jobs will have to be created in the next 15 years in an increasingly competitive world.

Bring together the private sectors of both Japan and the Arab World to explore the possibilities of creating joint-ventures between the private sectors for a range of tasks, from helping in the reconstruction of basic infrastructure in Iraq to training in Yemen and Mauritania.

Long term stability will require accelerated socio-economic development in the Arab world, and the strengthening of the Japan-Arab partnership for development will be very helpful in this direction.    This Japan Arab Development Partnership would be based on providing a regional umbrella for the bilateral aid programs that Japan maintains with many of the Arab countries.  This would strengthen the impact of every yen spent and gain Japan more support in more countries for the same programs. 

Supporting this development partnership will be a well-articulated Japanese foreign policy towards the Arab region with its unique role of bridge builder between the US and its estranged allies, and between the peoples of Japan and the Arab world as articulators of a new global order that replaces conflict with collaboration, discord with harmony and hatred with appreciation and mutual respect.

It is not an impossible dream.  With Arab eyes that honor the past with its glory, celebrate the present with its diversity, and embrace the future with all its promise and its risks… I look to Japan and I see not only a strategic partner for the Arab world.. I see a Japan that rose from the ashes to become the envy of the industrial world, a Japan that showed that it could master S&T better than the west, a Japan that showed that it could create modernization without losing its identity to westernization… that is the Japan that can have a policy that recognizes different needs for different countries, a policy that builds relations with multiple levels of interaction, a policy that is open both culturally and economically. 

Nothing is impossible.  You have shown it by your deeds in the past. We can invent a better future for the Arab societies and for the world.  For as John Kennedy said half a lifetime ago , half a world away, we all share a common humanity and we are all concerned for the better future of our children.  So let us invent that better future together.  For if there are those who look at the world as it is and ask: “why?”  I am one of those who look at the world as it could be and I ask “why not?”

Thank you.

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