More Saudi luxury than largesse for Indonesia

Saudi Arabian King Salman’s visit to Indonesia lavished more on hotels and security than his rich kingdom provided all last year in direct investment

Jakarta, March 6, 2017 12:21 PM (UTC+8)
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) gestures to King Salman of Saudi Arabia following a tree planting ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia March 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside
Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) gestures to King Salman of Saudi Arabia following a tree planting ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia March 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Darren Whiteside

During his nine-day visit to Indonesia, the first by a Saudi Arabian monarch in 47 years, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi and his 1,500-strong entourage have lavished far more on accommodation than the kingdom spent in direct investment to the world’s largest Muslim country for all of last year.

That was a mere US$900,000, down sharply from US$30.4 million the previous year and far less than the US$2.1 million it cost to install bulletproof glass in the presidential suite of Jakarta’s Ritz Carlton Hotel where the 81-year-old king stayed before heading to the resort island of Bali.

A fleet of six jumbo jets and a Hercules cargo plane brought the delegation from Riyadh, carrying food, two mobile lifts and other supplies weighing “459 Toyota Avanzas” – the media’s strange choice of measurement that works out to be 546.7 tons.

Limousines are parked outside a government tourism office in the luxury resort area of Nusa Dua ahead of Saudi Arabia's King Salman's visit on the island of Bali, Indonesia March 2, 2017. Picture taken March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Nyimas Laula TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTS119E1
Limousines parked at a tourism office in the Nusa Dua resort area ahead of Saudi King Salman’s visit to Bali, Indonesia. Photo: Reuters/Nyimas Laula

For all that – and the presence of 10 Saudi ministers and 25 princes – the signing of a US$1 billion deal to fund what were vaguely described as “various development projects” was a clear disappointment for the expectant Indonesians.

That was a drop in the bucket compared with the US$7 billion state-owned Saudi Aramaco oil company agreed to invest in a half-share of a Petronas petrochemical complex during the monarch’s state visit to neighboring Muslim majority Malaysia as part of a month-long Asian tour.

It was also a far cry from the US$25 billion in deals officials had said were to be signed during the visit, including US$6 billion for the expansion of the Cilacap oil refinery on Java’s south coast that had been the subject of a memorandum of understanding between the two sides signed in May 2016.

Indeed, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was left to lamely explain that Aramco and Indonesia’s state-run Pertamina oil company had yet to even establish a formal joint venture to expand the refinery’s capacity from 340,000 to 370,000 barrels a day.

Parliament was disappointed, too. It had forked out US$500,000 on a lavish reception, complete with new carpets and banks of flowers. Yet the king spent only 20 minutes there, during which he delivered a brief two-minute speech in Arabic.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia rides in a golf cart driven by Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesia March 2, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside - RTS1135C
King Salman rides in a golf cart driven by Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the presidential palace in Jakarta. Photo: Reuters/Darren Whiteside

Looking back at the mere US$14 million recorded between 2010 and 2013, the Saudis have avoided direct investment in favor of acquiring stakes in Jakarta’s publicly listed companies. But those figures are as opaque as the money funneled into charities for new mosques and religious schools.

Spreading Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative version of Islam, clearly has a much greater priority, with the kingdom pledging to build five mosques for the Defense Ministry and the Indonesian military – part of a program to add one million mosques around the world.

It also plans to open new campuses for the Saudi-funded Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies (LIPIA) in the South Sulawesi provincial capital of Makassar, in Medan, North Sumatra, as well as the East Java port city of Surabaya.

LIPIA established its first and only college in Jakarta in 1980. Its alumni since include jailed terrorist leader Aman Abdurrahman and Farid Okbah, the country’s leading anti-Shia ideologue, though hardliners are not the only graduates by any means.

Saudi Arabia has stepped up its proselytizing since Indonesia embarked on an Islamic revival at the birth of the democratic era in the late 1990s, with more women wearing the hijab and Islamic principles playing a greater role in education and political life.

High school students in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Roni Bintang, Reuters
High school students in traditional head-covering in Sumatra celebrate the end of national exams before heading to university. Photo: Reuters/Roni Bintang

Historically, there were several conduits for Saudi religious aid, although by the late 1970s worry about the kingdom’s impact on how Islam is practised led to the former dictator Suharto’s government directing that all external aid run through the Jakarta government.

One major charity, Al Haramain, was closed in 2004 after allegations surfaced that it had channeled money to militant groups then engaged in a bloody bombing campaign. Among the targets were the Ritz Carlton and the JW Marriott, two of the four luxury hotels booked out by the Saudi delegation.

Most Saudi funding currently comes through either LIPIA or the home-grown Indonesian Society for the Propagation of Islam (DDII), which has proved a key factor in Indonesia’s Islamic revival and its interaction with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

Over the years, it has grown into a strictly conservative organization with the sort of strong anti-Shiite, anti-Christian and anti-Ahmadiyah views that dovetailed with the Saudi agenda of countering Iran’s global influence after the 1979 revolution.

The DDII has built mosques, hospitals, and orphanages, distributed Qurans and other Islamic materials, aided local religious schools, trained religious leaders and awarded scholarships to Saudi Arabian and other Middle Eastern universities.

Religious scholar Ben von der Mehden says it has also sought links with other Islamic organizations at home and abroad, including the Muslim Brotherhood, international Islamic youth groups and even elements of the homegrown Jemaah Islamiyah terror network.

Anti-terrorism policemen carry an envelope after a raid at the house of suspect Nur Rohman at Sukoharjo district near Solo, Indonesia, July 19, 2016. Picture taken July 19, 2016. Antara Foto/Maulana Surya/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. - RTX2N3TE
Anti-terrorism police after a raid at the house of suspect Nur Rohman at Sukoharjo district near Solo, Indonesia. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Maulana Surya

While LIPIA graduates tend to gravitate toward mosques in urban areas and in university cities, they have not normally been the advocates of violent Islam, who come mainly from a small radical minority of the country’s 13,000 Islamic boarding schools.

Saudi Wahhabi-Salafi tenets may be more widespread than they once were, but von der Mehden says there are impediments to their expansion, starting with the rural tradition of melding local beliefs into Islam, a syncretic mix to which the doctrinaire Saudis are strongly averse.

Many Indonesians also equate Wahhabis and Salafis with fanning hate-speech, fanaticism and violence, while local mass Muslim organizations such as Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama seek to weaken their influence in the mosques and schools under their umbrellas.

Apart from the discomfort felt over the so-called “Arabization” of Indonesia, attitudes towards the Saudis themselves have not helped revelations in news reports of sexually abusive employers ill-treating Indonesian maids and, more recently, the kingdom’s failure to compensate the families of pilgrims killed in the 2015 haj disaster.

Indonesian Muslims take part in a rally in Jakarta on February 11, 2017, ahead of next week's Jakarta governor election.Thousands of Islamic hardliners are expected to congregate at a major Jakarta mosque on February 11 for a group prayer. But authorities fear a repeat of the huge demonstrations of conservative Muslims seen last year against governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is on trial for allegedly insulting Islam over comments he made on the campaign trail. / AFP PHOTO / Bay ISMOYO
Indonesian Muslims rally in the capital. Thousands of Islamic hardliners demonstrate against governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who is on trial for allegedly insulting Islam in comments he made campaigning. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

The countries will always remain bound by their shared belief in Sunni Islam, the million Indonesians who work in Saudi Arabia and the 221,000 Indonesians who will make the pilgrimage to Mecca this year, the country’s highest quota.

The number of Saudis visiting Indonesia is only a tiny fraction of that number, most of them heading for Hindu-populated Bali, where the king’s delegation spent five days in an environment whose only similarity to their homeland ends with the sea and the sand. 

But despite all the comforting talk last week about tolerance, religious harmony and the evils of extremism, moderate Indonesian Muslims are more worried about how Saudi Arabia’s conservative teachings may be eating away at the country’s secular underpinnings.

In a society where conformity has become the norm, once those beliefs have been implanted they are nurtured by the same hardline groups that are trying to ensure the ongoing trial on blasphemy charges of ethnic-Chinese governor Basuki Purnama will lead to his conviction. 

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