Saudi Arabia’s influence in Southeast Asia – too embedded to be disrupted?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir (L) upon his arrival at the Presidential Palace in Bogor, Indonesia, 22 October 2018. Adi Weda/EPA

The revelation of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi Arabia embassy in Turkey is harming Saudi Arabia’s international relations, including with Muslim majority Southeast Asian countries Malaysia and Indonesia.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad closed the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP). Malaysia is also withdrawing troops from Saudi Arabia.

In Indonesia, in addition to uneasiness about Khashoggi’s fate, people are protesting against the Saudi execution of Indonesian domestic worker Tuti Tursilawati without warning Indonesian authorities.

But, despite signs of change, the influence of Saudi money and ideology may be too big to dismantle in these countries.

Saudi influence in Southeast Asia

Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia shares similar values and was constructed and merged with ancient Melayu’s culture in 625c. Initially spread through arts such as music and wayang (theatre), it emphasises not only moderation and compassion, but also respect for local customs.

After increasing influence from Saudi scholars throughout the past two decades, however, there has been a change in how both countries interpret Islamic studies.

Saudi influence gained massive publicity due to the extravagant donation of US$680 million to Mahathir’s predecessor, Najib Razak, despite the fact it is increasingly evident it did not come from the kingdom’s royal family as claimed, but instead from corruption surrounding the 1MDB development fund.

In Malaysia, Saudi Arabia also donates to schools and universities to spread their conservative views. Scholarships are given to male scholars to study at Saudi universities such as the Islamic University of Madinah, famous for Salafism ideology.

The Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) receives generous funding from the Saudis. Similarly, in the Philippines, Saudi money has been traceable to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which allegedly had strong ties with al Qaeda.

The Saudis recently have been on a charm offensive in Malaysia. Their foreign minister visited in October, discussing matters such as Haj pilgrimage quotas. The Saudies have also tried to reassure the new government that their support for Najib was not malevolent.

When Saudi King Salman bin Abdl Aziz visited Jakarta in 2017, he allocated a $13 billion budget for business, education and religion in Indonesia.

In Indonesia, Saudi money is traceable back to the 1980s. They made contributions to the Institute for the Study of Islam and Arabic (LIPIA). The institution, founded on Saudi money, is famously known for ultra-orthodox Islamic views.

For instance, male students are urged to grow their beard and wear ankle-length linen pants. Women are encouraged to wear a burqa. The students study philosophical thoughts of Imam Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, a founding father of Saudi Wahhabism.

LIPIA has strong links to Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh. It’s strictly monitored by the Saudi embassy, essentially making it a branch of Saud Islamic University in Indonesia.

Khalid bin Muhammad Al-Deham, a Saudi national, leads the LIPIA management. There have been 11,535 alumni from 1982-2013. The number of graduates increases each year. In 2017 750 graduated.

The alumni include Liberal Islam Network (JIL) coordinator Ulil Abshar Abdalla, former house of representatives deputy speaker and Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) leader Anis Matta and former governor of West Java Ahmad Heryawan. Other notable alumni include Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) leader Rizieq Syihab, Aman Abdurrahman, the ideologue behind the 2016 Jakarta bombing that killed seven victims, and Jafar Umar Thalib, a founder of the militant and radical Islamic organisation Laskar Jihad.

Saudi Arabia also funds scholars from Indonesia to pursue Islamic studies at the Islamic University of Madinah. Among them are PKS politician Hidayat Nur Wahid, chair of the National Movement to Safeguard the Fatwas of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (GNPF-MUI) Bahtiar Nasir, and Syafiq Riza Basalamah, a famous Islamic preacher on YouTube. Syafiq is also head of the Islamic University of Imam Syafi'i in Jember, which adapts its curriculum from the Islamic University of Medinah.

Spread of Saudi ideology

There is a clear line between LIPIA in Jakarta, USIM in Malaysia, King Saud University in Riyadh and Islamic University of Madinah, which assists in the spread of Saudi ideology funded by Saudi money.

Not all their graduates support extreme views, of course. But there is a rise in extreme Islamic views triggering polarisation and conflict. Some are concerned that an increasing “Arabisation” of Malaysia and Indonesia has led to growing intolerance and division, even between Islamic adherents – creating a dichotomy of liberal and orthodox views.

This has a stronger impact when Saudi Arabia not only exports its Wahabism view, but then encourages people to enter politics. In Malaysia, proselytisation via Saudi-funded mosques has been followed by a growing role of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars being recruited into the governmental bureaucracy.

Wahabi and Salafi politicians are gaining stronger influence in Indonesian and Malaysian politics. This not only furthers the spread of Wahabism, but also embeds Saudi influence into these very structures.

The generosity of Saudi money in Southeast Asia allows the embedding of this influence, as well as their ideology. Economic linkages such as funding and oil deals with Indonesia and Malaysia increase the support of the Saudi Kingdom. As such, while there are current disruptions and attempts to transform the relationship with Saudi Arabia, their ideological and economic influences make this extremely difficult.

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