29 April 2006
Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani*
relationship between Indonesia and Arab
Gulf countries has always
been characterized by intimacy
despite the two regions being
geographically separated by
hundreds of thousands of
miles. This is mainly attributed to three factors: First, the great majority
population, which currently
is estimated at 220 million, adheres to the Islamic faith.
Second, many among the Indonesian elite and middle class are of Arab descent. And
third, there have been no
direct conflicting issues between
the two parties.
As a result, ties and
contacts between the two regions have continued developing throughout the centuries since the first
big wave of Arab immigration to Indonesia in the 13th century. Most
of those early immigrants
came as traders or religious teachers
from the Yemeni region of Hadhramaut. On the political level, however, the two
parties’ bilateral relations suffered
a set back in the 1950s and
1960s due to Indonesia’s radical slogans and its Cairo-centric Arab policy that
overshadowed the reign of the country’s
first president Ahmed
the ouster of Sukarno in the mid 1960s and
consequent policy change, which turned the
country into one of the
West’s strategic allies in Southeast Asian, Indonesia’s
concern about Arab issues weakened. It limited
itself to verbal support to the
Palestinian cause and
participation in the works
of the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Conference, while its regime’s entire
focus was on domestic issues and cooperation with neighbouring Asian countries.
other East Asian countries, which achieved much of their economic success under authoritarian
emergence as an economic tiger was during
president Suharto’s dictatorial regime.
But it was also under Suharto that the country experienced an unprecedented
style of corruption and suppression that prevented the country from sustaining its development and progress. While other Asian tigers
saved themselves from collapse by introducing different forms of political reform, Suharto’s regime continued its rigid policies.
This ultimately led to his fall in 1998 and the emergence
of the current democratic system based on political pluralism and openness, a development that has given Indonesia
a new image in the international arena.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s current tour
of the Middle East,
which began on April 25 by visiting Riyadh, therefore,
differs from his predecessors’ trips to the region for several reasons. First, Indonesia
is now not only the world’s
biggest Muslim country but also the biggest
democracy in the Islamic world and one of the rising Asian
powers with diverse capabilities and opportunities. It also represents a model for religious and ethnic-cultural
tolerance, something that makes it
an appropriate place for dialogue between
the Islamic and other civilizations.
is concerned more than any other
times about promoting multi-dimensional ties with Gulf countries, in order to secure a considerable share in the Gulf’s external investments which have recently been focusing on the Asian market
as part of the emerging “Look
East” concept in the Gulf foreign policy.
The inclusion of four GCC states in Yudhoyono’s five-country tour reflects such concerns.
Indonesia and GCC member states, in fact, can meet
many common challenges through systematic cooperation. For Example, Indonesia, as a country with many attractive investment opportunities, can be one of the
primary destinations of Gulf
investors, especially in sectors such as banking, agriculture, transportation, and
mining. This has been realized
as early as the 1990s by the Saudis whose
total investments in Indonesia from 1997 to 2004 were to the tune of $7.5 billion.
Indonesia, a founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
(OPEC), can also meet the challenge represented by becoming a net
importer of crude oil most months of the year through
seeking better cooperation with Gulf countries in the energy sector. The recent announcement
are to set up a joint refinery project
is a good
from economic cooperation, the two sides can
develop their cooperation in the fields of security, intelligence,
and anti-terrorism operations, given the fact that
both are targeted by groups
embracing the same violent ideology and seeking similar
relations may not develop
as desired if the issue of Indonesian migrant labour in the Gulf is left
without proper treatment. The six GCC member states currently host over one million Indonesian workers, 600,000 of whom are in Saudi Arabia
alone. The great majority of them are female domestic workers, who are generally not covered by local labour laws.
This has helped some employers deny them fundamental human rights.
to an official report, the Indonesian
embassy in Riyadh
receives 10 complaints from
female domestic workers on a daily basis. Cases mentioned in the report include maltreatment, sexual abuse, detention, and salaries being delayed or withheld for months.
*Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs