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Japan’s Role in Supporting Transition, Development & Statebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa

By Christopher K. Lamont
April 28, 2023
In 2017, I was in Samawah, Iraq, where Japan had more than a decade earlier deployed a non-combat contingent of its Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to contribute to reconstruction and humanitarian missions. While Japan’s SDF presence was relatively brief, from 2004 to 2007, it did leave a positive legacy in southern Iraq. Indeed, those who I talked to in Samawah expressed appreciation for the role Japan played in Muthanna province and expressed a desire for greater engagement on the part of Tokyo with Iraq. To be sure, Japan’s engagement in Iraq goes both far beyond this relatively brief SDF mission and also beyond these personal anecdotes. For example, when Japan’s ambassador to Iraq, Iwai Fumio, wrapped up his posting in Baghdad in 2018, there was widespread appreciation offered on Iraqi social media for Japan’s departing Arabic-speaking ambassador who had embraced Iraqi culture during his time in the country.
Japanese-Arab conversation concept
While substantial attention was paid to Japan’s role in the Middle East in the early 2000s, in the 2010s, two events seemed to cast a shadow over Japan’s outreach in the MENA region. The first was the January 2013 attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria, which resulted in the deaths of ten Japanese nationals. In Tokyo, the incident raised questions about the security of Japanese nationals working in critical energy infrastructure sites across the region. The second, was the hostage taking crisis in Syria in 2015, which brought back memories of similar crises involving Japanese nationals a decade earlier in Iraq.

However, neither of these pivoted Tokyo towards a more narrow securitization of its ties in the region. Indeed, it would be a mistake to view Japan’s relations with this dynamic and resource rich region through a securitized lens. Japan’s relationships in the region are multifaceted. What are the key features of this relationship and why does it resonate? In order to answer these questions, I will explore how Japan contributes to transition, state-building, and development in a variety of different contexts. This will be done through a few examples from Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq

Japan’s relationship with Tunisia, for example, is a longstanding one. Japan’s financial assistance to Tunisia totals US$3.1 billion. This assistance has contributed to a wide range of developmental projects, many of which preceded the ousting of President Ben Ali in 2011 in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. An example would include the 2.6 kilometer-long Radès-La Goulette bridge spanning the Lake of Tunis. More recently, Japan has provided assistance to the Tunisian government to deal with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and to address climate change. Moreover, Tunis’ hosting of the 8th Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD8) in August 2022, anchored Tunisia as one of Japan’s key partners in the region.

In neighboring Algeria, Japan also enjoys long standing relations. With Algeria’s National Liberation Front opening a mission in Tokyo in 1958, prior to Algeria’s independence in 1962, Japan’s ties with Algiers trace back to the independence struggle. Decades later, Tokyo continues to play an active role in facilitating development projects, such as locally-targeted microfinancing for projects that contribute to human security. An example of this is a project for the El Rahamet foundation to train women working in a date fruit processing workshop.
Small flags of Algeria
In Libya, where Japan’s Kobe Steel built a steel-making plant in the 1980s, Japan has often been a preferred partner for technical assistance. Even in the context of Libya’s ongoing civil war, Japan continues to provide financial assistance for humanitarian projects, often through multilateral frameworks. While Japan’s in-country presence has been limited since the escalation of violence in Libya, over the course of 2020 to 2021, Tokyo provided US$18 million to Libya for economic reconstruction, food assistance, and efforts to address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Returning to Iraq, Japan continues to provide assistance for critical infrastructure projects in water and electricity. In southern Iraq, despite being oil rich, power outages during extremely hot summers remain a regular occurrence due to a crumbling energy infrastructure. Japan has recently provided assistance that facilitated the reconstruction of part of Basrah’s Hartha Power Station and the Basrah Water Supply Improvement Project. Japan’s parliamentary Vice-Speaker Takagi Kei, who visited Iraq to mark the completion of these projects underlined in his remarks in Basrah, Japan’s commitment to facilitating projects aimed at improving the lives of Iraqis.

Japan has sought to cultivate relations with regional capitals on the basis principles of mutual understanding and people-to-people ties outlined in 2017 during the first Japan-Arab Political Dialogue. With this in mind, Tokyo seeks to harness its own technological and developmental know-how to contribute to a wide range of initiatives across diverse contexts to facilitate a deepening of Japan-MENA ties. As this brief sketch of Japan’s ties with Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq highlighted, such an approach aims to both provide targeted assistance and address shared challenges across this rapidly changing region.
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