ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday praised the long relationship his energy-hungry nation has had with the United Arab Emirates, a crucial oil supplier, at the start of a Mideast tour.
Abe appeared briefly at a Japan-UAE Business Forum in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi, at one point even praising Japanese fruit for sale.
"Japan and the UAE are keen to develop a people-to-people dialogue," he said.
But produce and interpersonal communication are far from the most-important business relationship Japan has with the UAE. A parade of oilmen speakers, including oil company INPEX Corp.'s CEO, stressed the need for Emirati crude and gas.
"Abu Dhabi is an extremely important region for us and accounts for half of our net production," said Toshiaki Kitamura, INPEX's CEO and chairman. "We cherish our relationship with the trust we have built with the Abu Dhabi government."
About a quarter of all oil imports for Japan come from the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A third comes from Saudi Arabia, while a fifth of all its natural gas imports come from Qatar and the UAE, making peace across the Gulf Arab nations crucial to Japanese energy supplies.
In February, INPEX Corp. received a 10-percent stake in Abu Dhabi's offshore Lower Zakum oilfield for 40 years after paying a fee of $600 million. It separately paid $250 million to extend its interests in two other oilfields. The Lower Zakum produces some 450,000 barrels of oil per day.
Abe also visited the UAE in 2007 and in 2013. While addressing the business forum, Abe said the UAE and Japan planned to sign an investment treaty.
"Bilateral relations between the two countries would not succeed without the support of the business leaders attending this forum," he said.
He also took part in several other signings before hustling off to meet Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
After Abu Dhabi, Abe will travel to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Before leaving Japan, Abe told journalists Middle East peace was a priority on his trip.