The Real Reasons for the Saudi King’s Asian Visit

Moderate Muslims and non-Muslims alike may worry that the high-profile visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to Malaysia and Indonesia signals another Saudi Salafi assault on traditionally more flexible Southeast Asian interpretations of Islam.

But the royal tour, which also includes official visits to Japan and China as well as holidays in non-Muslim Bali, and in the Maldives, is more a sign of political weakness than of missionary zeal.

Most media coverage of the tour has focused on size of the king’s entourage (at least 1,500 princes, ministers, officials, businessmen and security personnel) and the hundreds of tonnes of cargo to support this caravan of six jumbo jets. Awe and amusement have been popular responses. But the tour has a very serious purpose. The nation needs friends in Asia that are best acquired by finding common commercial and political interests rather than in promoting an austere desert interpretation of religion among the paddy fields and coconut palms of Muslim Southeast Asia.

The visit has also shown up the contrasts between an Indonesia which, despite occasional upsurges in intolerance, seems comfortable in its pluralistic skin and a Malaysia whose leader is desperate to find allies as he seeks to ward off scandal and maintain his hold on its ruling party.

The core political issue for the Saudis is their rivalry with Shia Iran. From Riyadh this may seem a life and death struggle being played out by surrogate wars in Yemen and Iraq/Syria. It is one which the Saudis have been losing as Iran has come to terms, albeit uneasily, with the west (Trump excepted) while finding common cause with Russia in Syria and enjoying comfortable relations with China and India.

Saudi Arabia sees itself as a bastion of stability and conservatism against Daesh/Islamic State. But others see it as the original source of the extremist ideology that gave the world Al-Qaida and the Taliban, now further developed into IS. Most of Asia may be Sunni, not Shia, yet Iran’s clerical regime still enjoys admiration among Islamic purists and Iran’s ancient civilisation, sense of nationalism and level of educational and industrial development give it support among the more secular-inclined.

In the case of Indonesia, identification as Sunni and respect for the homeland of Mohammed is balanced by grievances over the treatment of Indonesian domestic helpers. And, as voters have repeatedly shown, appeal to confessional politics gains limited traction among a population used to diversity and with Pancasila and the Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity) national motto at least as familiar as the Koran.

The Saudis have long been pouring money into building mosques, funding religious schools and scholarships to study Islam overseas but their ability to continue to do so is in doubt given that the state currently needs an oil price of US$70 a barrel for its budget to break even, and stabilize its foreign exchange reserves. Now it needs to invest in money- making businesses, not parade an ideology that many Muslims find unpalatable.

Indonesians want a bigger quota for the haj, the journey to Mecca that every devout Muslim is expected to make, but expect equality not to have to make political bargains to get it. King Salman exuded courtesy and the need for moderation but he could not escape the fact that President Widodo had already shown Indonesia’s unwillingness to be drawn into the Saudi-Iran dispute, which is about much more than Sunni-Shia rivalry, by visiting Tehran last December and talking up cooperation in energy and power production.

Similarly, China has sought balance, Xi Jinping visited Iran soon after Saudi Arabia. In reality Iran is more important strategically and economically – despite Saudi oil. For now, however, the Saudis still have money for investment, which Indonesia in particular is keen to attract into an ailing energy sector. The Saudis also badly need investment in the growing and relatively stable countries of Asia. Thus, tie-ups between the Saudi giant Aramco and Malaysia’s Petronas also make investment sense for both parties.

But Malaysia has long lost any sense of neutrality on the Iran question. Its Royal Air Force Hercules transport aircraft have been providing logistical support for the Saudi war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen – a group allegedly backed by Iran but which has its roots in Yemen’s internal politics.

That help may not be unconnected with Saudi help for Prime Minister Najib Razak over the scandal-scarred state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd. A sum of $681 million deposited in Najib’s personal account was a gift from Saudi Arabia, announced its foreign minister in April 2016, not from 1MDB-related entities as previously said by Malaysia’s former Attorney-General, and as reported in the Wall Street Journal. US federal prosecutors have pretty much put the lie to that statement, having traced the funds as part of their so-called kleptocracy investigation into 1MDB.

Malaysia also provides another contrast to Indonesia – and one which appeals to the Saudis – with its intolerance of different interpretations of Islam. Thus, Shia and other non-Sunni sects are banned and Sunni Islam subject to the interpretations of state-appointed officials. Malays are deemed to be all Muslims whether they want to be or not and are unable to make up their own minds on religious matters.

Malaysia is also being rewarded with additional scholarships to study in Saudi Arabia. Given the high level of development of tertiary education in Malaysia, offers to study in Saudi are widely seen as furthering indoctrination in its interpretation of Islam. Last year the Sultan of Johor attacked the use of Arabic words and dress codes in place of traditional Malay ones, suggesting that proponents of them should go and live in Saudi Arabia. Given the current state of Malay politics such sentiments are unlikely to gain traction soon but longer term Malay identity may again come to the fore.

Over the centuries there have been several bursts of Arab missionary fervor challenging the syncretic, undogmatic interpretations of Islam which have thrived on the islands and peninsula of southeast Asia. The one driven by the post-1973 oil price boom has left a deep mark. But the tide of oil power has turned, which explains why King Salman has come to Asia.