Saudi king’s visit and Indonesia’s hypocrisy
When my older sister who lives in Germany came to Indonesia recently, we gave her the royal treatment. Well, she’s family after all and had not visited in 12 years.
So if a family member hadn’t visited in 47 years, the royal treatment would be quadrupled, right? Well, that’s how long it had been since a Saudi monarch had visited Indonesia – King Faisal in 1970. So when King Salman came calling in February the reception was pretty over the top.
Family member? Yes: being Muslims, we are all members of the ummah (community of Muslims), which for some is even more meaningful than blood ties. Our qibla (direction Muslims face when praying) is toward Mecca, but Saudia Arabia is also increasingly Indonesians’ qibla for many things they consider part of their Muslim identity.
Arab-style attire is one example, but more importantly the adoption of a more rigid and literal interpretation of the Koran than the moderate Islam Nusantara (Islam of the archipelago) for which Indonesia is famous.
King Salman is one of the richest world leaders – and boy did he show it! An entourage of 1,500 in eight wide-bodied jets, a few limousines and two gold-plated escalators – because of course, one isn’t enough, right? We Indonesians lapped it all up and various dignitaries and political leaders fell over themselves to pay obeisance to the custodian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Well, at least we got the extra haj pilgrimage quota we were hoping for.
Since 1980, Saudi Arabia’s investment here has been in Indonesian culture and religion, devoting millions of dollars to exporting Salafism, a strict and dogmatic brand of Islam. It has built hundreds of mosques, a huge free university, provided teachers, scholarships and much, much more.
Yet despite the ostentatious display of wealth, because of falling oil prices Saudi Arabia is going through a recession.
Hence the ambitious one-month tour, not just to Indonesia but also to Malaysia, Brunei, Japan, China, the Maldives and Jordan. Obviously, the trips to China and Japan have nothing to do with Islam, but are an attempt to look for partners and investors in the Asia-Pacific region to lessen Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil revenues.
Besides China overtaking the United States as a big net importer of crude oil in 2016, there are also geopolitical considerations. With the uncertainty that comes with the Donald Trump presidency, China is seen as a counterweight to the US for Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy.
What about terrorism? Yes, that was mentioned too in King Salman’s underwhelming two-minute address at the House of Representatives – which sounded more like the speech of a Miss World contestant – to stand united against global challenges, in particular against the clash of civilisations, terrorism and to work together to achieve world peace. Funny that. Is decimating Yemen a way to achieve world peace? Yes, Saudi Arabia committed crimes in Yemen as evidenced by the destruction of infrastructure and the killing of thousands of innocent civilians, including children.
As for the clash of civilisations, it’s more like a clash of ignorance, which is the title of the essay that Edward Said wrote to debunk Samuel P Huntington’s 1993 thesis “The Clash of Civilisations”. The hypothesis is that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.
Oh really? Is that why the US and Britain provide the arms used by Saudi Arabia to crush Yemen? Because, of course, Saudi Arabia is the US ally in the Middle East, though ties were loosened when the US betrayed them by making deals with the Saudis’ main rival Iran.
Yet Saudi Arabia is not about to break up with a US that still provides it with the best weaponry and spare parts too.
The Saudi evolution
But Saudi Arabia is “evolutionising”, as Ameera al Taweel put it.
The 33-year-old drop-dead gorgeous US-educated princess, businesswoman, women’s advocate and humanitarian philanthropist is the ex-wife of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, 60. He’s one of the more progressive of the thousands of princes of the Saud family and one of richest men in the world, who is planning to give away his US$33 trillion to charity when he dies.
And would you believe that there’s a vegan Saudi prince who wants to veganise the Middle East? Meet Khaled bin Alwaleed (yes, the son of Al-Waleed bin Talal), 38, handsome and a fervent environmentalist who believes that “Climate change and the unjustified consumption of energy are two of the most serious issues we face today at the macro-level.”
Hope he’s saying this to his gas-guzzling compatriots. Yes, Saudia Arabia is the world’s largest oil producer, but also the world’s sixth-largest consumer.
Then there’s Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi, formerly an employee of the KSA’s religious police who had a life-altering experience while studying stories of the prophet Muhammad and came up with the conclusion that being Islamic is about being more liberal. No need to close shops for prayers, to cover women up, or to ban them from driving. Unsurprisingly, his statements drew death-threats from compatriots.
Like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia has a demographic bonus: Sixty per cent of the population is under 30. Like Ameera and Khaled, they are connected to a globalised world and they will rebel against the strictures of the Islam espoused by their forebears.
Change in Saudi Arabia seems inevitable, as it is becoming more progressive, climate-conscious and is espousing “Western” notions of rights (which the US under Trump seems to be abandoning). Meanwhile Islam in Indonesia is becoming more Arabised and conservative. Ironic or what?
Julia Suryakusuma is the author of “Julia’s Jihad”.