Saudi Arabia Goes Global: The Implications of King Salman’s Trip to Southeast Asia

When King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia embarked on a month-long trip to Southeast Asia this February, Western media outlets focused on incredulous stories about the monarch’s large entourage and their mountain of luggage. Traditionally obsessed with the desert kingdom’s human rights record and its state-sponsored brand of Islam, those same outlets took delight in touting the trip as a sign of Saudi economic weakness in the face of sustained low oil prices. However, they neglected a far more important development: By venturing eastward toward the nearly quarter of a billion Muslims in Southeast Asia, King Salman sought to secure Saudi Arabia’s leadership of the Islamic world. In doing so, its engagement in the region is likely to stabilize Muslim leaders, thus empowering Malaysia and Indonesia, though perhaps at the cost of unity among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as the leader of the Islamic world, but Iran has challenged that position since the ascendance of its theocratic government in 1979. Since the Obama administration’s conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran lifted sanctions and reincorporated the nation into the folds of world politics, the threat of a resurgent Iran has been looming large in the Saudi psyche. This trip is undoubtedly a means of cementing the desert kingdom’s leadership status before Iran is fully reintegrated into the world order. And there are few better ways of cementing one’s leadership of the Islamic world than by backing leaders who have made a concerted effort to appease Muslim voters and further Islam as a way of life in their countries.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak has been aggressively courting the Islamic vote since a scandal broke last year involving the embezzlement of almost $700 million from a public development fund known as the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). To restore credibility and reach out to his Muslim voter base, Najib’s government has repeatedly focused on key issues for Islamic communities in Malaysia. In December 2015, Rayani Air, Malaysia’s first Shariah-compliant airline was launched to much fanfare. Several months later, the government introduced a bill that would implement punishments such as amputation and stoning – determined by Shariah law – in Shariah courts. In a clear attempt to woo Muslim voters, Najib voiced his support for the bill. A year later, he led a boisterous rally in Kuala Lumpur, expressing solidarity with the persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar and condemning national leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While elections only need to be called by mid-2018, many have speculated that they will be called later this year. In that sense, the King timed his visit perfectly. Few could better affirm Najib’s religious legitimacy than the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. In fact, King Salman’s visit could be the last bit of political theater on either side before elections are formally called.

Rather than merely bolstering short-term political fortunes Saudi Arabia is also committed to increasing its economic leverage with these nations. This involvement comes at a welcome time, as Southeast Asian leaders are realizing that their decades-old strategy of depending on China’s economic performance to spur domestic growth is losing efficacy. The slowdown of the world’s second largest economy since 2014 has dealt a huge blow to Southeast Asian growth. Indonesia, in particular, was hard hit when exports to China fell 22.5 percent in 2014 from the previous year. Far from being a momentary drop, that figure slid a further 34 percent by the end of the first quarter in 2015.

In that light, Saudi investment in Indonesia presents an alternative source of funds to fuel economic growth. During the King’s recent visit, the two governments inked a slew of agreements, the most notable of which included a $6 billion refinery joint venture between the two countries’ state-owned oil companies, Pertamina and Saudi Aramco. Malaysia’s economy has also been underperforming in the midst of the 1MDB scandal, and it received a generous amount of Saudi aid during the King’s visit, negotiating seven memoranda worth more than $2 billion. Saudi investment presents a much-needed opportunity for both countries to diversify their economies and distribute the proverbial eggs from their Chinese basket.

For Indonesia and Malaysia, these new connections come at an important time, as these nations have recently suffered from waning autonomy in their security and geopolitical decisions. Particularly, both countries have been abnormally quiet on the South China Sea conflict playing out in their backyards, undoubtedly due to their lopsided dependence on China. In Malaysia’s case, China has become its top trading partner and source of foreign direct investment. Furthermore, China has demonstrated extreme generosity in helping to bail out the heavily indebted 1MDB.  Not only has it spent over $4 billion to acquire an energy company and property project in 1MDB’s portfolio, China will likely help settle an additional $6.5 billion debt as well. In the absence of other willing financiers, Najib seems to have decided that silence on territorial issues was a small price to pay for political survival.

Though not dependent on timely Chinese bailouts, Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s relatively clean government is also reliant on Chinese goodwill. Since coming to office in October 2014, Jokowi has met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on five different occasions. The leaders’ rapport has seen Chinese investment in Indonesia rise from $600 million in 2015 to $1.6 billion in just the first nine months of 2016, making China the third largest investor in Indonesia. China is also funding and executing a host of infrastructural projects across the archipelago, helping Jokowi fulfill a key campaign promise. However, China’s claims in the South China Sea seem to put 30% of Indonesia’s Natuna Islands in a potentially disputed zone, and despite numerous efforts to clarify Beijing’s stance on the issue, the Indonesian government has continually been frustrated by the Chinese refusal to clear the air. This has led to confrontations between fishing boats and naval officials from both sides over the past few years. Nonetheless, for all the browbeating, Indonesia’s economic ties with China make taking a strong stance on the South China Sea – and potentially risking a full-blown conflict – extremely difficult.

Saudi engagement with Southeast Asia will offer both these countries the opportunity to wean themselves slightly off their deep-seated economic dependence on China. With more diversified trade, they can secure a measure of flexibility in defending their sovereign interests in the South China Sea with the knowledge that their economic lifelines will not be entirely cut off in the event of Chinese hostility.

What Saudi Arabia’s involvement augurs for ASEAN, however, is quite a different question. While it may give ASEAN a realistic opportunity to address difficult issues like the South China Sea as a bloc, its cultural and religious influence threatens to divide those nations with Muslim majorities and those without.

Particularly, King Salman’s government has sought to tighten religious and academic links.  In Indonesia and Malaysia, the King agreed to raise the hajj quotas – the limits placed upon the annual pilgrimage to Mecca – to make the Saudi-centered journey more accessible. Salman also tripled full university scholarships for Malaysian students to study in Saudi Arabia. In Indonesia, the desert kingdom has built over 150 mosques and established a free university in Jakarta that educates 3500 students each year. And these changes are far from idle: As a Scott Shane of the New York Times notes, Saudi teachings have “shifted the religious culture in a markedly conservative direction.”

In predicting how Saudi Arabia’s cultural engagement may affect ASEAN, Najib’s recent tirade against Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s complicity in the persecution of Rohingya Muslims may forshadow future tensions in the region. If religiously-driven voters are to become part of Najib’s base, he will likely continue to position himself as a defender of Muslims across the region, possibly at the cost of condemning nations like Myanmar for their mistreatment of Muslim citizens. This rift will probably cause significant tensions with countries where sizeable Muslim minorities are present – a list that includes the majority of ASEAN. These countries are already on edge after a spate of recent attacks and foiled terrorist plans, and they will certainly advocate for the Muslim-majority countries to disseminate a more moderate brand of Islam.

Najib’s diatribe was bizarre given ASEAN’s steadfast adherence to the principle of non-interference in other member states’ affairs. ASEAN’s founders were explicit in their insistence that each state should be given the latitude to govern as they saw fit, stemming from a desire to send a message to the then-superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, that sovereignty was sacrosanct. In this instance, Najib was able to evoke a response from Myanmar and ASEAN, but it sets a dangerous precedent: The message the founders sought to communicate may be quickly eroding today’s climate of worldwide dependency.

Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Southeast Asia signals the uncertainty and instability of today’s global order. With the US seemingly absolving itself of international leadership and calling into question the very tenets of the postwar world, a host of state actors have devised various means to protect their nations’ interests. Saudi Arabia is no different in that respect, but its renewed engagement poses difficult questions for an already weakened ASEAN.

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