29 April 2006






 Promoting Indonesia-Gulf ties

Dr. Abdulla Al-Madani*


The 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 of Indonesia’s 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 Sukarno.


With 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.


Like other East Asian countries, which achieved much of their economic success under authoritarian regimes, Indonesia’s 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.


Indonesian 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. Second, Indonesia 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 that Riyadh and Jakarta are to set up a joint refinery project in Indonesia is a good beginning.


Apart 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 goals.


However, 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.


According 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



Your Comments