Propelling Diplomatic Relations

0
830

The appointment of Her Excellency Asako Okai as Ambassador of Japan to the Kingdom of Bahrain marks a significant milestone in the enduring friendship between the two nations as they navigate a rapidly-evolving global landscape. Kristian Harrison spoke with her to discuss her commitment to fostering deeper ties, her key priorities and the opportunities for strengthening bilateral cooperation.

Your Excellency, congratulations on being appointed as Ambassador of Japan to Bahrain. What has been your diplomatic career path so far? What personal experiences or values shape your approach to diplomacy?
Through my 35-year career in the Japanese Foreign Service and at the United Nations, I gained an extensive track record in development, humanitarian, disaster management and peacebuilding work at both strategic and operational levels of bilateral and multilateral contexts. The last five years, I was serving as Director of Crisis Bureau at an Assistant Secretary General level in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Transformation, innovation and financing were the key elements of success.

My services abroad as a Japanese diplomat include stints in the UK, Pakistan, Australia, New York as Permanent Mission to the UN, Sri Lanka, and as Consul General of Japan in Vancouver, Canada. Key posts held in Tokyo include Director for African Affairs and senior positions in the International Cooperation Bureau.

My approach to diplomacy is driven by such a belief that the world should help each other and should compete in finding solutions that work for everyone and for the planet, not for your own selfish interests.

What are your priorities and aspirations for your term as Ambassador?
Fortunately, Bahrain and Japan are already enjoying a steadfast relationship, and we are on track to make it even stronger. In the rapidly changing, but also complexly troubled world, Bahrain and Japan can enhance partnerships at a strategic level to address global agendas including peace and sustainable development. My aspiration during my term is to take steps that would contribute to making a difference and achieving results.

My top priority is facilitating businesses to widen and deepen collaborations particularly in emerging areas, such as sustainable energy transition, to support Bahrain’s transformation and diversification of economies. We can seek win-win solutions that are economically viable while shaping a new sustainable future. Secondly, I would like to raise the visibility of each other’s strengths and appealing points through promoting culture, food, tourism and more. Thirdly, recognising Bahrain’s strategic positioning in the Arab region, which has great implications to the global peace and security, I would like to explore ways for further collaborations in areas concerning security and stability.

What have been your first impressions of Bahrain and how are you liking it here?
I have found the Bahraini people to be most hospitable, kind and open-minded. Wherever I go, I am grateful for the warm welcome, offers of support and tremendous interests in partnering with Japan. People outside the region have a certain stereotyped perception over women’s role in Arab society. Contrary to that, I was genuinely delighted to see that gender equality is taken at face value in Bahrain. Bahrain’s commitment to freedom of choice, human rights and peaceful coexistence of all religion and ethnicities is commendable. These are aspects of Bahraini people and life that I want to promote in Japan and elsewhere.

What are the current trade figures between the two nations? What steps you plan to take to promote trade and investment?
The total bilateral trade amounted to USD1.5 billion in 2023. The imports from Japan to Bahrain reached USD680 million with a 48 percent increase compared to 2022 due to increasing automobile and related goods. Japanese car makers occupy a major share in Bahrain; namely over 50 percent of the non-luxury market and over 30 percent of the luxury market. Exports from Bahrain to Japan amounted to USD820 million, with a 38 percent decline against 2022, attributed to a drop in Crude Oil, Diesel and Aluminium.

Japanese investments in Bahrain concentrated on electricity generation, water desalination and financing projects, while exploring potential future moves into petrochemicals, manufacturing, sustainable generation of electricity and water, waste-to-energy solutions and environmental protection. And, as Bahrain is becoming a regional hub for technology start-ups, there are great opportunities for Japan to invest in future-oriented sectors, like gaming, e-commerce, FinTech and AI.

How popular is Japan as a tourist destination in Bahrain?
The recent years have witnessed a remarkable increase in tourism exchange. The number of tourist visas issued by the Japanese Embassy in Manama increased by 60 percent in 2023 compared with 2019. The Japanese government considers the Arab and Muslim region the fastest growing emerging market for inbound tourism. Similarly, we are also witnessing growing interests in outbound tourism towards GCC countries from Japan.

We have seen the love and passion in Bahrain for the Japanese culture and its food. How does the embassy plan to further foster the understanding of Japanese culture in the Kingdom?
We are appreciative of the support by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities in organising cultural activities and events including exhibitions of Japanese traditional arts and the annual Japanese Film Festival. Last month, we hosted the traveling exhibition “I love Sushi”. Food will be given a special focus throughout the year as we continue to promote it.

What specific areas do you see for increased collaboration between the two nations?
Firstly, I am thrilled by the ongoing collaboration in archaeological excavation and research. Currently, two Japanese teams are working on examining burial mounds from the ancient Dilmun period in Wadi Al Sail and from the Tylos period in Maqaba. Recently, they organised a regional workshop to employ digital techniques and virtual reality for conservation of cultural heritage. Additionally, Bahrain and Japan are coming together through the signing of an MoU to establish the Bahrain Centre for Arabian Gulf Archaeology and Cultural Heritage to advance and promote research on archaeology and cultural heritage in the Arabian Gulf countries.

Secondly, on aerospace exploration, building on a successful launch of the Bahraini-Emirati satellite Light 1 into space orbit through the platform of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Bahrain’s National Space Science Agency (NSSA) and JAXA have been constantly exploring new cooperation opportunities in space science training, research and development, with a focus on upskilling Bahraini talents in this field.

Thirdly, ongoing bilateral and multilateral defence and security cooperation with Bahrain is playing a crucial role in enhancing regional security and freedom of navigation. Since 2009, Japan has been a member of CTF 151, the international anti-piracy force under the Bahrain-based Combined Maritime Forces. Bilateral defence cooperation is also expected to expand, with a revised MoU on Defence Cooperation and Exchange being signed last year.

Finally, we attach importance in fostering the next generation of Bahraini leaders by offering educational and upskilling opportunities such as the Japanese Government (MEXT) scholarship programme and the Ship for World Youth programme. In cooperation with Tamkeen, since 2010 more than 100 Bahrainis have received training at Yokogawa Middle East & Africa, and a new cooperation scheme with Japan’s leading application developer E-Growth is underway.

Is there anything you would like to add, Your Excellency?
I would like to take this opportunity to thank HM King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister, HRH Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and the people of Bahrain for their great appreciation towards Japanese culture, history and what Japan can offer for Bahrain. I look forward to working closely with all stakeholders to further advance our relations to a new level.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here