Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reviled in many parts of the world for his alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is scheduled to arrive in Jakarta on Monday (February 19) on a short, low-key visit that will be as much about restoring his tattered image as business and diplomacy.
Asia Times has exclusively learned that the 33-year-old prince, widely known as MBS, requested the visit in December as part of a tour of several Islamic nations across Asia, with one senior government source describing it as an attempt at ”re-imaging or re-branding,” but perhaps with a business sweetener as well.
The unannounced trip comes two years after his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudi, paid the first visit to Indonesia by a Saudi monarch in 47 years, lavishing more on hotel rooms than the kingdom spent in direct investment to the world’s largest Muslim country for all of 2017.
Sources in the local Muslim community say Riyadh has had a change of attitude toward Indonesia since the International Monetary Fund-World Bank conference in Bali last October, which showcased the country’s economic potential and showed it to be more than simply a land of exportable maids.
“The IMF meeting was a real eye-opener to many Saudi businessmen,” claimed one prominent Indonesian Muslim figure with strong ties to the kingdom. “They thought we were a poor country that only produces domestic workers. They were surprised we make trains, boats and planes.”
Earlier this year, Indonesia was the guest nation at the annual Festival Janadriyah, a prestigious art and culture exhibition in Riyadh which has helped its standing in the Arab world.
The sources reject speculation that the visit is timed to give President Joko Widodo a boost in the lead up to the April presidential election, given his sustained efforts over the past year to improve his standing among Islamic conservatives.
In his latest ill-advised move, the president was forced to retract the amnesty he had considered granting terrorist leader Abdul Bakar Ba’asyir, now serving a 15-year jail term for funding a militant training camp, after he refused to swear allegiance to the state.
“For Widodo, the electoral mileage he gets won’t be much,” says the Muslim figure in reference to the Saudi prince’s visit. “Moderate Muslims are safe in his (Widodo’s) camp and the Islamists don’t like MBS. He is seen as being too liberal. A bad influence.”
That stems from the prince’s recognition that Saudi Arabia’s home-grown Wahabism, an ultra-conservative Islamic doctrine and religious movement founded in the 1700s, has been responsible for the growth of radicalism and terrorism around the world.
“That’s why he has talked about adapting the middle path,” says Azyumardi Aztra, head of the post-graduate school at the Jakarta-based National Islamic University. “But he’s not clear what that middle path is. He really should stay longer than he is to learn from us.”
The prince’s “2030 Vision” plans to wean Saudi Arabia off its traditional dependence on oil revenues and transform the kingdom it into a modern state where private business thrives and women are permitted to drive cars and enjoy other personal freedoms.
So far, though, his economic reforms have brought only pain. The return of more than a million migrant workers from Saudi Arabia to neighboring South Asia countries has led to a collapse in domestic consumer spending, while fewer construction contracts and reduced fuel subsidies have delivered further blows to the economy.
During Salman’s eight-day stay in Indonesia, much of it spent in Bali, the signing of a US$1 billion deal to fund what were vaguely described as “various development projects” was a far cry from the $25 billion in investments Indonesian officials expected to be finalized during the trip.
Among those was the $6 billion expansion of the Cilacap oil refinery on Java’s south coast that had been the subject of a memorandum of understanding between state-owned oil companies Aramco and Pertamina in May 2016.
Two years later, the two firms have yet to establish a formal joint venture to expand the refinery’s capacity from 340,000 to 370,000 barrels a day. “It’s typical of Saudi Arabia or any Arab country,” says academic Azyumardi. “They love to make promises, but they never seem to deliver.”
In general, Muslim commentators believe it will take time for the Saudis to change what one calls their “racist attitude” towards Indonesians and a Jakarta government that is often ignored when Riyadh executes, including by beheading, Indonesian maids accused of killing their often abusive Saudi employers.
But while they feel Indonesians practice a heretic brand of Islam, inspired in many ways by their cultural upbringing, there is little argument in Saudi Arabia these days over the piety of Indonesian Muslims, who constitute the largest number of pilgrims flocking to Mecca each year.