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Saudi-Indonesian Relations: Historical Dynamics and Contemporary Development.

In March 2017, King of Saudi Arabia, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (b. 1935), had made a landmark visit to Indonesia, the first by a Saudi monarch since 1970, when King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (1906-1975) visited the archipelago. (1) King Salman's visit to Indonesia was considered an extraordinary event by Indonesians as he was accompanied by a large number of people, including princes, government ministers, businessmen, and other dignitaries. Indonesians, from elite members of society to ordinary people, were equally eager to impress. Top government officials and politicians highlighted the visit as historic, while enthusiastic crowds, including tens of thousands of students, lined the route of King Salman's heavily guarded motorcade to the Bogor presidential palace in West Java. The Indonesian government deployed some 10,000 security personnel to protect King Salman and his entourage during their visit to Jakarta, Bogor, and Bali. (2)

Although only two Saudi monarchs have visited Indonesia to date, bilateral relations between the two countries are not new. The Kingdom was among the first countries to recognize Indonesia's independence in 1945. Indonesia-Saudi ties were initiated formally in 1948 with the establishment of the Indonesian Embassy in Jeddah; two years later, a Saudi representative office was set up in Jakarta, which was upgraded in 1955 to a formal Embassy. Moreover, although formal relations between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia began only with postindependence Indonesia, the two Muslim-majority nations and their people had established contacts long before Indonesia gained its independence in 1945 and long before Saudi built a modern kingdom in 1932 that united all regions in the Arabian Peninsula from Ahsa in the east to Hijaz in the west.

Despite the long history of Saudi-Indonesian relations, there is limited writing on the topic. In general, existing studies and literature on the links between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia or Indonesians in Saudi Arabia put emphasis on three sets of issues. The first is the role and contributions of Haramain-trained (Mecca and Medina) Indonesian Islamic scholars in the past centuries who shaped the archipelago's Islam, religious education, and Muslim practices and cultures (Azra 1992, 2004; Basri 1997; Irsad 2015; Rachman 1997; Ulum 2015). The second topic is Saudi Arabia's unskilled Indonesian migrant groups, particularly housemaids, drivers, and laborers. This scholarship usually discusses issues such as the treatment of these workers, including violations of human rights, abuse of domestic workers, working conditions, and the powerlessness of workers (Diederich 2005; Silvey 2004a, 2004b). The third focus is on the role of Saudi Arabia in Indonesia's "Arabized Islam," strict Salafism, and other severe puritanical, reformist forms of Islamic practices, understandings, interpretations, and discourses that in turn create tensions and conflict within Indonesia's diverse Muslim and non-Muslim communities. Writings in this category extend to work on the emergence of Islamist extremism in Indonesia (Chaplin 2014; Hasan 2005, 2007, 2014; Indra 2017; Jahroni 2013; Kovacs 2014; Lim 2011; Nawab 2011).

We take a different approach by focusing on the bilateral relationship between the two countries as between two pragmatic and rational states. Although we see social and religious dimensions as important factors shaping the dynamics of Saudi-Indonesian relations, we see the two countries' ties as fundamentally consistent with the realist emphasis on state calculations, with each country's aiming at maximizing its own national interests (Aldamer 2001).

Religion and people-to-people ties nonetheless play a key role in the relationship, establishing historical patterns, influencing how the two countries assess each other's impact on their national interests, and shaping how the two countries see each other's governments and societies today. Although the religious dimension of Saudi foreign policy is not an end in itself, as Preuschaft (2016) points out, religion is a significant factor in Saudi foreign relations, and the same is true for Indonesia. In short, while religion is not the primary driving force behind Saudi-Indonesian foreign relations, Islam is a very important factor, shaping many aspects of the bilateral relationship including education, trade, employment, business, and pilgrimage (hajj and umra). It has also played a significant role in the vicissitudes of Saudi-Indonesian ties (Patrick 2016).

At the same time, people-to-people contacts shape mutual perceptions along multiple dimensions. Historical contacts impart an intellectual and cultural dynamic to the contemporary relationship. This includes the conflictual interactions often emphasized by scholars. For example, Machmudi (2016, 287) stated that "the one-way street of religious relations between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia creates cultural barriers and results in tension rather than exchange and cooperation." In fact, as we suggest, there have been multiple responses toward and perceptions of the Saudi Kingdom by members of Indonesian society, from political elites to the ordinary masses. Some Indonesians consider Saudi Arabia, with its strict religious practices and official interpretation of Islam, as a major source of Indonesia's intergroup clashes because of its role in educating Indonesian elites, especially Islamic studies graduates, who are intolerant of Indonesia's cultural and religious differences. Others, however, particularly Indonesian students of Saudi educational institutions, migrant workers, and those from Salafi groups, regard Saudi Arabia not only as a main source of Islamic knowledge and the caretaker of Islam's most holy sites, such as Haram Mosque and Nabawi Mosque, but also as a model for an imagined pious society--as well, as will be described, as a source of economic income. Chaplin (2014: 218-19) has conducted fieldwork on the significance of Saudi Arabia as a basis for educational and financial sponsorship as well as a site of religious authority and ideals among some Indonesian Muslim groupings and finds that the Kingdom has become an "imaginary ideal" against which the "social corruption" of Indonesia is assessed. Other research shows that Saudi Arabia has generated alumni of its Islamic universities who support intolerance, conservatism, and radicalism but also ones who advocate tolerance, moderatism, and conciliation (Irsad 2015; Ulum 2015).

This article is based on existing literature and field research that includes interviews and conversations in both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, in addition to analysis and interpretation of multiple sociohistorical/-political/-cultural events and facts in the two states. It begins with an explanation of the historical roots of Saudi-Indonesian relations, highlighting the vitality of religion, intellectualism, and economy, as well as religious-socialpolitical development as the important factors of their contact. This discussion is followed by a description of the shifting mutual images and perceptions between Indonesians and Saudis. The article then explores the recent bilateral developments between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, observing that they illustrate the expansion of cooperation across increasingly diverse sectors from business and economy to education, defense, and counterterrorism. The article concludes with a brief comment on King Salman's historic visit to Indonesia and its significance to Saudi-Indonesian relations.

The Roots of Contemporary Saudi-Indonesian Relations--Religious, Intellectual, and Economic Factors

As scholars of Indonesian Islam and its history have noted, contacts between Arabia (Hijaz and Yemen) and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago are ancient, producing a sort of "creole culture" and civilizations of great complexity and internal diversity (Abaza 2007; Azra 1992, 2004; Freitag and Clarence-Smith 1997; Tagliacozzo 2010, 2014). Contact between the Indonesian archipelago and Arabia was enabled by the maritime contact across the Indian Ocean. Both regions established relations long before European colonials landed in Indonesia. Historically, Arabs, particularly Hadramis (from South Yemen in the southern Arabian Peninsula), journeyed to the Malay-Indonesian archipelago mainly for trade, residing, or da'wah (spreading Islam).

Historian Eric Tagliacozzo (2014; see also Ho 2006) states that Hadrami wanderers were one of the most vital groups who made the sea voyage to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Eventually, most Hadramis came to live as part of a far-flung diaspora away from Yemeni shores, spreading Islam and their own business networks as a corollary of their travel, with the Malay-Indonesian archipelago serving as an increasingly important destination for this group. Hadrami sojourners brought--and introduced to the local communities they encountered--their own variants of Islam and Arab culture, both material culture (for example, ceramics, textiles, gemstones, and most importantly coffee) and immaterial culture (such as customs, music, dance, and so forth). The two most important exports of the Middle East to Southeast Asian societies were trade goods and Islam (Das Gupta 1979; Pearson 1994).

What motivated Indonesians to travel to Saudi Arabia? There are, of course, multiple reasons, motives, and objectives of Indonesians--past and present--who made an uneasy sojourn to the Arabian Peninsula. In other words, there are various "push-pull factors" that contributed to the travel and migration of Indonesians to both Hijaz in the past and to contemporary Saudi Arabia. Among the push factors were such drivers as communal conflict, political violence, drought, famine, extreme religious practices, poor economic activity, and lack of job opportunities, among many others. The pull factors were the search for security, improved welfare through better economic opportunities, educational opportunities, and better interreligious and interethnic relations, among other draws.

As will be explained below, the factors that pushed Indonesians to leave their homeland for Saudi Arabia either temporarily or permanently (again, both in the past and today) have included the shortage of Islamic education in Indonesia, the rise of religious piety, poor economic conditions, and the dearth of job opportunities. The pull factors (conditions in Saudi Arabia) that have pulled or attracted Indonesians include the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina (for hajj and other religious practices), better Islamic education, scholarships, and better job opportunities, among many other factors. The desire to perform hajj in Mecca and visit Prophet Muhammad's graveyard in Medina in particular has brought many Indonesians to Saudi Arabia over the centuries. Many of these hajj pilgrims later became agents for spreading Islam and Arab cultures within Indonesia (Douwes and Kaptein 1997; van Bruinessen 2015).

Diederich (2005) divides the contacts between Arabia and Indonesia into two main phases, each of which is defined by different motives and purposes. Diederich argues that the first stage, which lasted until World War II, was typified by the predominance of religious contacts, while the second phase, the post-World War II phase, was marked by the increased migration of menial laborers seeking employment and unskilled jobs. At the center of the first stage, according to Diederich, is the hajj pilgrimage in Islam, which drew Indonesians to Arabia to perform this vital religious compulsion. The second stage is a "function of both the need for expatriate labor in Saudi Arabia and of Indonesia's uneven economic development, which failed to absorb excess human resources in the country itself" (Diederich 2005, 128). However, although there have been a significant number of migrant menial workers from Indonesia in Saudi Arabia, (3) this group's weak bargaining position in both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia has prevented it from playing more than a marginal role in transnational processes.

Unlike Diederich's observation, however, as we seek to show, the first phase of contact between the two countries was marked by Arabia not only as a religious draw but also by intellectualism. This is to say that the reason why Indonesians traveled or migrated to Saudi Arabia in the first stage was not only to perform religious-spiritual activities such as hajj but also to obtain Islamic knowledge and study Islamic sciences. After the hajj, the majority of Indonesians returned to their homeland. However, a small minority stayed behind or continued to travel between Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) and Indonesia. Furthermore, after completing hajj rituals and learning and studying multiple Islamic sciences, some students preferred to stay in the Haramayn (in the two holy cities of Mecca or Medina--known as mukimin or the mukims), becoming teachers and scholars who run halaqah (study circles) freely for pilgrims and building ribat (Islamic boarding schools). From the early seventeenth century through the mid-twentieth century, some of these initial educational travelers who then resided in the Haramayn became respected imams of Haram Mosque (Masjid al-Haram), fine teachers of Islam, noted Islamic scholars (ulama), and gurus (teachers) of--and a spiritual-intellectual inspiration for--many Indonesian pilgrims (Azra 1992; Basri 1997; Irsad 2015; Rachman 1997; Ulum 2015). (4) The mukims in turn created small Indonesian enclaves and helped to build a Kampung Jawah or Kampung Jawa (literally Javanese village) in Mecca, located in the district of Shamiah or Shi'ib Ali.

Second, with regard to the second phase, Indonesians traveling or migrating to Saudi Arabia since the 1970s in particular were seeking not only unskilled occupations, as Diederich observes, but also professional, skilled jobs, as well as to study various sciences and pursue degrees in multiple disciplines (Islamic and secular sciences alike). However, it should be noted, during the first stage, most, if not all, students learned and studied Islamic sciences at Hijaz's multiple formal and informal learning institutions such madrasah, halaqah, rubat, kuttab, and mosques. During the second phase, however, there were three types or groups of Indonesians traveling or migrating to Saudi Arabia, not to mention hajj/umrah pilgrims. There were those who sought unskilled jobs (menial workers) as well as skilled occupations (professional expatriates) working in the oil industry, construction companies, hotels, or hospitals. There were other Indonesians who went to Saudi Arabia to study Islamic sciences in multiple Islamic learning centers, including madrasah, mosques, institutes, colleges, and universities. This phenomenon differs from the previous one where Indonesian Muslims learned Islam at informal educational sites, particularly at the holy places of Mecca's Haram Mosque and Medina's Nabawi Mosque or madrasah (Islamic schools). A third group of Indonesians traveling to Saudi Arabia comprised those pursuing education in secular sciences and engineering, mostly at graduate levels (master's and PhD). Most in this group study at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (Dhahran), King Saud University (Riyadh), and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Thuwal). (5)

Although religion, education, and occupation have been important reasons for Indonesians to travel to Saudi Arabia, Saudi outreach to Indonesia was initially driven by religious-political factors such as, most notably, the Arab Socialist Movement and the Iranian Islamic Revolution. Later, the Suharto administration welcomed Saudi initiatives and endeavors to join forces against Shia Iran. It is true that during the anti-Iranian campaign that began in the 1980s in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution, the two countries intensified relations partly because of their mutual interests and objectives in diminishing the ideological-political influence of the Iranian Shiites in their respective nations and societies (Lim 2011; Nawab 2011). This reversed the strains between the two countries that had followed Saudi attempts to forge a global coalition with Muslim-majority nations, including Indonesia, to counter the effect of the Arab Socialist Movement and the Middle East's various brands of radical republicanism that Saudi Arabia saw as a potential threat to the Kingdom (Hasan 2005, 2007). Then Indonesian president Sukarno, an admirer of republicanism and socialism, was unenthusiastic about joining the campaign. However, after the Iranian Revolution, concerned about the "virus" of Shia revolutionary ideology, Suharto began to change his policy and political orientation, marked by building connections with the Saudi government, Islamic elements, anti-Shia Islamists, and urban middle-class Muslim groups (Hefner 2000; van Bruinessen 2002).

It was during the Suharto era that Saudi Arabia began to give extensive financial support to Indonesian Islamist groups to campaign against (Iranian-led) Shiism and at the same time to introduce Saudi's Salafism-Wahhabism into Indonesian society. In 1980, Saudi Arabia also built an Islamic college in Jakarta, named LIPIA (Lembaga Ilmu Pengetahuan Islam dan Bahasa Arab--the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies), a branch of Riyadh-based Al Imam Muhammad bin Saud Islamic University. The LIPIA's curricula are mostly built on the basis of Saudi Salafi-Wahhabi doctrine (Jahroni 2013). During the Suharto era, Indonesian Muslim students linked to Islamist organizations also began to study Islamic sciences in multiple Saudi Islamic universities through the generous support of the Saudi Kingdom. Later, Indonesian alumni of Saudi Islamic academic institutions, including the LIPIA, played an important role in influencing Indonesian Islam and Muslim cultures. Unfortunately, however, many graduates also became involved in antipluralist movements, intolerant actions, and religious radicalism (Hasan 2005, 2007, 2014). Due to the destructive role played by these alumni, along with reports of unpleasant actions of some Saudi employers of Indonesian domestic workers (Silvey 2004a, 2004b), many Indonesians have come to see Saudi Arabia as a site for a strict form of Islamic Wahhabism (or Salafism), terrorism, intolerance, antipluralism, anti-women's empowerment, anti-religious dialogue, and other stereotypes. As will be elaborated further below, the brief visit of King Salman with its heavily economic and business-oriented agenda surprised both Indonesian "liberals," who tend to view Saudi Arabia negatively, and "radicals," who have an even more negative view, seeing the Kingdom as a source of severe Islamic conservatism that restricts interactions with other religions and non-Muslim societies. It thus marked a potentially significant turning point for the way Saudi Arabia is viewed by Indonesians.

However, students and intellectual migrants are only a small portion of Indonesians in Saudi Arabia. The largest group for the past several decades has been labor migrants. Saudi Arabia, along with the Gulf states, is one of the world's largest destinations for foreign workers (Kawach 2003; Ratha 2003). With a population of more than 31 million in 2016, labor migrants constitute about 33 percent of the total population of the Kingdom. Foreign workers were drawn to the Kingdom with the oil-price boom following the 1973 oil crisis (HRW 2004), which brought with it infrastructure and development plans requiring additional labor, as well as rising demand for domestic workers. An influx of skilled and unskilled laborers led to an increase in the size of the Saudi population by 1985, and workers from Egypt, India, Pakistan, and Yemen pursued jobs in the construction and oil sectors. Even after oil prices declined in the 1980s, the demand for domestic workers, particularly female guest workers from South and Southeast Asia to perform menial domestic work, persisted. (6)

As for Indonesian migrants to Saudi Arabia specifically, numbers have been growing since the early 1980s, when Indonesia started to export menial workers and housemaids to the Kingdom as a matter of formal agreements between the two countries. Falling international oil prices led to rising unemployment and economic upheaval in Indonesia and overseas employment offered a new source of jobs for unemployed Indonesian nationals as well as crucial foreign exchange in the form of remittances. (7) In 1983, under an agreement between the Indonesian government and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in which retired general Sudomo, the minister of manpower in Suharto's New Order administration, played a key role, Indonesia sent 47,000 fully documented workers to the Kingdom. With wages in the Kingdom substantially higher than in other possible destination countries in Asia such as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, or Singapore, Saudi Arabia became a preferred destination for documented Indonesian workers. Between 1984 and 1989, the number of Indonesian workers with contracts in Saudi Arabia rose to 223,579, and increased again to 384,822 in the following five-year period. Between 1989 and 1994 the majority (about 59 percent) of documented overseas workers from Indonesia had migrated to Saudi Arabia (Hugo 1995; Silvey 2004a). By 1998 the number was approximately 380,000 (Hugo 2002). Numbers have grown still further in this century. The Indonesian government through the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration had planned to send 2 million workers with fixed-term contracts to Saudi Arabia between 1998 and 2003. Although these goals were not met, the number of workers in 2004 had grown to as many as 550,000, making Indonesia the ninth largest source of foreign nationals in the Saudi workforce after India, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Jordan (HRW 2004).

Data from the Indonesian National Bureau for Placement and Protection of Indonesian Workers (Badan Nasional Penempatan dan Perlindungan Tenaga Kerja Indonesia or BNP2KI for short) show that from 2005 to 2010, the majority of Indonesian workers abroad, including those to Saudi Arabia, were unskilled laborers. (8) Although the first wave of Indonesian workers during Saudi Arabia's initial construction boom was dominated by men who worked for large construction companies and shopping centers across the Kingdom, women have made up the majority of documented migrants since (known as Tenaga Kerja Wanita/khadmah or "female workforce"). Silvey (2004a, 2004b) notes that two-thirds of Indonesia's labor migrants to Saudi Arabia between 1984 and 1994 were women; between 1994 and 1999, more than twelve times as many women as men formally migrated to Saudi Arabia. More than 80 percent of these migrant women worked as domestic workers, particularly as housemaids (pembantu rumah tangga) (Silvey 2004b). By 2009, the number of documented female domestic workers from Indonesia stood at a reported 700,000 (Machmudi 2011). (9)

Official government figures from the Ministry of Manpower and Transmigration previously mentioned do not include undocumented migrants. Many people travel from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia without completing the documentation required by the government, making it likely that there are substantial numbers of migrants in this category. A common practice is for Indonesian citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia with an umrah visa typically before the time of the hajj, as this is the easiest way to enter the Kingdom. Many wish to perform the hajj but have insufficient funds, so seek temporary jobs to survive. Some stay in the Mosque Haram with a very limited budget. There are reports that some visitors even become malnourished because they do not want to leave the mosque for fear of arrest. Some perform hajj; however, after completing their hajj, they do not return home but instead remain in Saudi Arabia with compatriots, often family members, who have settled in cities, particularly Mecca, Jeddah, and Medina. This phenomenon began even before the Indonesian government started to encourage labor exports to Saudi Arabia in 1983.

In addition to the hajj pilgrimage, personal networks are another channel for undocumented Indonesian migrants in Saudi Arabia. Families and friends become conduits for undocumented migrants into jobs in informal sectors. Some informants (10) report a strong network of Indonesians, particularly those from Madura, Java, Lombok, or Sumatra, in Mecca, Medina, and Jeddah. (11) In recent years, however, the number of illegal migrants has decreased dramatically with the implementation of more rigorous Saudi policies toward undocumented immigrants, including deportation.

Working in Saudi Arabia provides an opportunity for Indonesians to find jobs with wages higher than those they may find in Indonesia. However, as stated before, with few notable exceptions, most Indonesians who travel to Saudi Arabia to work find employment in private households, where for a variety of reasons they have limited bargaining power. Indonesian maids are valued for work in the private sphere because they are (generally) Muslims, except those from Flores, Nusa Tenggara Timur, and other parts of eastern Indonesia, where most migrants were Christians. Lacking predeparture training, Arabic skills, and unfamiliarity with modern household gear, however, there are often strains between them and their employers or their landlords. Sometimes violent confrontations have led to the jailing of domestic workers, while others have received the death penalty (HRW 2004; Hugo 2002; Machmudi 2011; Silvey 2004a, 2004b).

The abuse of housemaids by some Saudi employers has become a source of social concern in Indonesia and a strain on the bilateral relationship. Indeed, in November 2010, for instance, Indonesians held a series of protests in Jakarta and other cities, criticizing both the Saudi Kingdom and the Indonesian government. Indonesian publics called out the Kingdom for neglecting human rights and human needs of housemaids and the Indonesian government for failing both to play a role in negotiating with Saudi authorities on behalf of working conditions for Indonesian workers and to address the issue of domestic violence or death sentences. Interestingly, the Saudi government almost immediately stopped accepting domestic household workers from Indonesia after this criticism from the Indonesian public; however, the government of Indonesia was quite slow to respond to the public outcry. At the time, the Indonesian government was reluctant to end the export of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia. Government officials even glorified female domestic workers as the heroines of foreign exchange or remittances (known as pahlawan devisa) for Indonesia, as they significantly contributed billions in US dollars to the national income. Only in 2011 did the Indonesian government stop sending female workers to Saudi Arabia (Irianto 2011). As will be discussed in greater detail below, five years later, in 2016, the Saudi Kingdom and the government of Indonesia reached a new agreement on the terms of labor contracts for Indonesian domestic workers in the Kingdom.

Although news about the ill treatment of female workers is commonplace, it is a mistake to generalize conditions for domestic female workers and maid-employer relations in Saudi Arabia. Educated and religious Saudi employers generally treat their housemaids well, hiring them in accordance with the government policy on foreign domestic workers, giving them a proper room to live in as well as a weekend break, taking them to tourism places at home and abroad, and so forth. Some generous Saudi employers also take care of the housemaids' family members in Indonesia, sponsor them for umrah and hajj, and even invite them to work in Saudi Arabia. There are also cases of marriage between Saudis and Indonesian housemaids. Other domestic servants report that their employers helped to build their homes in Indonesia. These positive stories have been widely circulated among wives of Indonesian professional expatriates in Saudi Arabia who have informal groupings for social gatherings, Quranic recitations, or religious sermons. (12)

Changing Mutual Images and Perceptions Between Saudis and Indonesians

There is no doubt that the surge of Indonesian menial and unskilled laborers in the kingdom depicted earlier has negatively affected Saudi perceptions of Indonesia. Despite the presence of a sizable number of Indonesian professional expatriates, the prevailing perception of Indonesia in Saudi Arabia has become that Indonesia is a very poor country and Indonesians are uneducated people. In short, since the 1980s, when Indonesia began to export unskilled workers to the Middle East, what had been a positive image of Indonesia in Saudi Arabia began to degrade. Since the 1980s, the term Jawi ulama (Islamic scholars from Malay-Indonesian archipelago) that once gained a high esteem in Hijaz in the past centuries has been supplanted by references in the media to "Indunisi workers," namely, menial laborers from Indonesia. Educated Saudis, particularly those trained in Islamic disciplines, social sciences, and the humanities, generally still acknowledge the constructive role and positive contributions of the Jawi ulama in Islamic schooling and religious discourses in the past centuries. (13) Some contemporary Saudi Islamic scholars even established a private Islamic learning center in Mecca to train Indonesian Muslim students in the Islamic sciences in honor of the Jawi ulama. However, for the most part, if Indonesians in Mecca were once viewed as likely knowledge seekers, today, they are perceived as unskilled job seekers.

Negative images and perceptions of contemporary Indonesians on the part of Saudi citizens have contributed to some political tensions between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. After initially resisting a change to its labor export policy, the Indonesian government suspended the export of menial laborers, beginning with female domestic workers in 2011 and after 2015 both male and female domestic workers, to Saudi Arabia (and after 2015 to other parts of the Middle East). Jakarta's policy was driven in part by popular pressure on the government to take steps to repair negative images and perceptions of Indonesia (and Indonesian society) in the Kingdom as an exporter of unskilled workers and uneducated people.

However, the general trend in relations between the two countries has been toward stronger formal bilateral ties. For example, Indonesian ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Agus Maftuh Abegebriel, initiated on behalf of Jakarta a long-term diplomatic program called SAUNESA (Saudi Arabia-Indonesia) to boost close relationships between the two nations. (14) Informal channels have also been used to boost ties: for example, in late May 2016, Saudi philanthropist and businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, chairman of Kingdom Holding Company, visited Indonesia and met with President Joko Widodo to discuss a number of local and regional issues, the global economic climate, investment, as well as humanitarian and social issues related to their respective countries. Prince Alwaleed has long-standing business connections with Indonesia and investments in the country. Through Alwaleed Philanthropies, the prince also has donated millions of US dollars for charities and humanitarian and social issues in Indonesia (The Kingdom 2016).

It was the visit of President Joko Widodo in September 2015 to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, however, that led to a qualitative leap in bilateral relations, reflecting an interest by both sides to develop the relationship in new directions. The president, along with his accompanying delegations, was warmly welcomed by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. King Salman, moreover, decorated President Widodo with the prestigious King Abdulaziz Medal--the highest honorary medal granted to foreign heads of state, symbolizing an appreciation of the strong friendship, relationship, and cooperation between the two nations. The two leaders held talks on a number of international and regional issues of mutual concern and interest and identified ways to enhance bilateral ties (Saudi Gazette 2016).

The momentum to enhance relations was reflected in the visit to Indonesia only a month later by the Saudi minister for foreign affairs, Adel Al-Jubeir. During meetings with President Joko Widodo and, later, the Indonesian minister of foreign affairs Retno Marsudi, Al-Jubeir discussed enhancing cooperation between the two countries in the fields of political consultation and coordination, military, security, the economy, investment, cultural exchange, oil and petrochemical industries cooperation, and cooperation in other fields. Among the new agreements that have been concluded, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia signed a defense cooperation agreement (DCA), the first agreement of its kind between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. (15) The DCA covers training, education, defense industry cooperation, and counterterrorism (Panda 2014). Counterterrorism is a particular concern as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are among the Muslim-majority countries in the world that have suffered from multiple terrorist attacks by radical Islamist groups. Accordingly, it is understandable that the two countries have joined forces to fight against terrorism, which has damaged not only the reputation of both nations but also the Islamic religion and the international Muslim community as a whole. Both countries have special counterterrorism units. Saudi Arabia, under the chairmanship of Minister of Interior Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, has succeeded in battling against terrorism with a variety of counterterrorism programs. Indonesia, via the special security unit Densus 88, has also gained a reputation for its success in fighting against domestic terrorism since the Bali Blast in 2002. For Saudi Arabia, the DCA with Indonesia comes on the heels of a similar deal with Pakistan, highlighting the Kingdom's interest in expanding relations with Islamic nations outside its immediate Middle Eastern neighborhood.

In addition to defense relations, Riyadh and Jakarta have also sought to expand bilateral trade. Historically, trade between the two countries has been dominated by energy. However, in recent years, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia have agreed to double their bilateral trade value by 2020 by expanding into more diverse sectors. The total trade between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia amounted to $8.6 billion in 2015. Indonesian exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to $3.35 billion in 2015, while imports were worth $5.14 billion (Saudi Gazette 2016). Increasing Saudi investment in Indonesia has become another goal, with the value of Saudi investment in Indonesia reaching $29.3 million in the first half of 2015. During a visit to Indonesia in May 2016, Maher Jamal, head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, along with a delegation including thirty-four Saudi business representatives, identified such sectors as professional nursing care, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and medical equipment as additional areas for trade and investment opportunity. To bolster its commitment, the Makkah Chamber of Commerce (16) announced plans to cooperate with the Indonesian government to create an Arabic language website and take other steps to make it easier for Saudi businesspeople to identify business opportunities in Indonesia.

Religious, cultural, and educational ties have also been an area of interest to both countries. Beyond economic ties and the security cooperation described above, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia generally see the expansion of religious and cultural links as mutually beneficial. This interest on the part of the Saudi government is long-standing. In 1980, Saudi Arabia established the Jakarta-based Islamic Studies and Arabic Language Institute (known as LIPIA) (see Hasan 2005; Scott 2016). Over the past several years, the Kingdom has sent Arabic teachers to Indonesia and granted scholarships for Indonesian students to study in a number of universities in Saudi Arabia, including King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (Dhahran), King Saud University (Riyadh), King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Thuwal), Islamic University (Medina), King Abdulaziz University (Jeddah), Umm Al-Qura University (Mecca), and Taiba University (Medina), among others.

Another mark of the changing relationship between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia is the implementation of a new agreement between the two nations on Indonesian domestic workers in the kingdom. In May 2016, after an approximately five-year vacuum since the Indonesian government stopped sending female workers to Saudi Arabia in 2011, the Saudi Ministry of Labor and Social Development and its Indonesian counterpart reached a new agreement for the recruitment of domestic workers (Arab News 2016). The deal stipulated that the Indonesian government should send the workers within a month after their visa dates are approved. According to the pact, the ministry will safeguard workers' interests and needs, such as allowing workers to keep their identity cards and travel documents with them and the freedom to call their families. Prior to reaching this new agreement, travel documents and identity cards belonging to the Indonesian housemaids were usually kept by their landlords. Accordingly, they were unable to travel outside their employers' houses. If they did so and were caught by the police, they would be sent to prison because they could not provide legal documents. This new agreement marks a potential breakthrough, as it gives more freedom and rights to documented workers.

Moreover, the new deal that was signed by both Saudi and Indonesian governments provides several other helpful provisions to ensure a smooth policy, facilitating better arrangements for domestic Indonesian help in the country. The treaty includes the establishment of a mechanism to guarantee the rights and duties of the workers and the employers, per international norms. Furthermore, the agreement seeks to ensure that the working contracts are in accordance with applicable laws and regulations in the two countries and requires employers to open a bank account in the name of the worker for the purpose of depositing his or her salary, as stipulated in the employment contract.

Another positive development for Indonesians in Saudi Arabia is that Saudi authorities have also agreed to facilitate consular assistance by diplomatic missions for Indonesian citizens in the event any Indonesian is arrested or detained. In this case, the Indonesian consulate will facilitate the return of the Indonesian workers to their home country once their work contract has expired or in emergency situations; this includes the issuance of exit visas. Under Article Four of the agreement, the Indonesian candidate for employment must be between twenty-one and fifty-five years old, with no prior criminal records. Additionally, they must be trained in the skills required in the work contract and have familiarized themselves with the culture, customs, and social norms in Saudi Arabia. Indonesian domestic workers must also meet health conditions set by Saudi Arabia. Finally, the new bilateral agreement stipulates that an employment contract only comes into effect when the language and wording of the document is understood and formally agreed upon by both parties. Any disputes, the agreement says, between the parties should be amicably solved through the use of a joint conflict resolution committee and the engagement of all necessary regulatory channels. This 2016 agreement on labor is a step toward alleviating an area of friction between the two countries.

Indeed, the historic visit of King Salman to Indonesia in March 2017 can be seen as consolidating a new phase of relations between the two nations. The visit was connected to the Kingdom's plan for an initial public offering (IPO) of 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, the giant national oil company, expected to reach a $2 trillion value, making it the largest IPO on record. Along with the hope of attracting Indonesian investors to this IPO, King Salman's visit to Indonesia--as well as to several other Asian countries, including Malaysia, Brunei, China, and Japan--was part of a broad endeavor to advance Saudi Arabia's economic and business interests. King Salman's visit to Indonesia yielded joint declarations, memoranda of understanding, and agreements between the two countries in multiple sectors, including trade, education, health, culture, pilgrimage, tourism, information, science, technology, civil aviation, fisheries management, defense, security, and transnational crime, among others.

A striking feature of King Salman's visit to Indonesia was his deliberate acknowledgment of Indonesia's religious diversity. In Jakarta, he met Muslim and non-Muslim leaders, both male and female, from multiple religions, including Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. At an interreligious meeting, the king stressed the significance of building dialogue and enhancing communication among religions and cultures to enhance tolerance, adding that as religion aims to protect and elevate human rights, extremists of all religions must be confronted. In speaking to the Indonesian parliament, King Salman called for a united fight against terrorism and radicalism. The objective of King Salman's visit was thus not limited to developing ties between two Muslim countries. It irrevocably altered the previous dominant image in Indonesia of Saudi Arabia among both Indonesian "liberals" who had seen the Kingdom principally as a promoter of intolerance and efforts to reduce women's rights, as well as a source of terrorism, and "radicals" who had seen Saudi Arabia as a supporter of Islamism, conservatism, religious intolerance, and Islamist supremacy.


The description and analysis above suggest a number of findings. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, in which religion--Islamic identity--is a core vehicle for interaction, cannot be separated from the national interests, political, economic, or cultural, of the two states. In past centuries, roughly from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, migrants or travelers to Saudi Arabia were primarily driven by the desire to learn Islamic sciences and seek religious knowledge, hoping that, after completing their study in the Haramayn, they could preach and spread Islam in the Indonesian archipelago. For devout Muslims, learning Islam in the birthplace of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad could bring both prestige and blessing (berkah) to the learners. Other major motives included conducting religious rituals (ibadah) in the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina as well as performing hajj pilgrimage. Such visitors came for the most part from "religious families" who sought to deepen their religious knowledge or were elite members of society who wished to maintain or elevate their position and status because the title of hajj was considered to be highly prestigious in Indonesia's past. The hajj pilgrimage, hence, was not only about religious obligation but also tied to social status.

In the contemporary era, however, particularly since the early 1980s, while Saudi Arabia's religious significance has remained a draw for Indonesians, most Indonesians travel to Saudi Arabia for employment reasons. While labor migration has become an important link between the two countries, it has also been a source of tension. In recent years, alongside efforts to strengthen and broaden Saudi Arabia-Indonesia bilateral ties, the two countries have sought to address concerns about employment conditions and other issues related to Indonesian workers in the Kingdom. In addition, Saudi Arabia has sought to attract advanced students and educated professionals from Indonesia through scholarships and employment opportunities. Efforts to deepen cooperation between the two countries in the commercial and security arenas, moreover, have broadened the basis of the relationship to reflect more modern, more pragmatic, and more equal state-to-state relations.


Sumanto Al Qurtuby teaches cultural anthropology in the Department of General Studies, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. A graduate of Boston University, he has published extensively on issues of violence, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding; Muslim politics and cultures; the role of religion in public affairs; and Arabia-Southeast Asian connections. One of his many books is Religious Violence and Conciliation in Indonesia (2016). He can be reached at alqurtuby@kfupm

Shafi Aldamer is a Saudi political analyst and academic researcher. He is currently the chairman of the Department of General Studies at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. He earned his PhD from the University of Durham in international relations and strategic studies of the Middle East. Among his publications on Saudi Arabia's relations with other states is his book, Saudi Arabia and Britain: Changing Relations, 1939-1953 (2003). He can be reached at

(1.) The aim of King Faisal's visit in 1970 was mainly in support of the Palestine issue. Moreover, his visit to Indonesia was one of a series of official visits to Malaysia, Thailand, and Afghanistan (Altahaowi 2008).

(2.) See -benz-459tonnes-luggage-golden-escalator (accessed May 8, 2017).

(3.) In the last few years, the number of Indonesian menial laborers in Saudi Arabia decreased significantly since Jakarta stopped sending them to the Kingdom.

(4.) Figures such as Abdus Samad Palembang, Imam Nawawi Banten, Kiai Mahfudh Termas, Abdul Karim Banten, Abdullah Muhaimin Lasem, Ahmad Khatib Minangkabau, Muhammad Muchtar, Shaikh Yasin Padang, and many others were the leading scholars in Mecca in the past.

(5.) Interview with Rama Rizana, a former secretary of Saudi's Indonesian Muslim Student Association, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, May 21, 2015.

(6.) See Human Rights Watch, /saudi0704/4.htm#_Toc75678056 (accessed October 28, 2017).

(7.) Bank Indonesia reported that workers' remittances reached USD 229 million in 1992 and would grow to USD 6.998 million in 2012 (Bachtiar 2011).

(8.) See the official website of BNP2TKI at

(9.) Kompas, August 23, 2009.

(10.) Interview with Indonesian migrants in Saudi Arabia, March 25-26, 2016.

(11.) Informants in Jeddah and Mecca said that some family members of Indonesians who live in Mecca province are without legal work documents because they entered the kingdom with umrah or hajj visas.

(12.) The data and information here are based on my (Sumanto Al Qurtuby) interviews and conversations with Indonesian workers in the Eastern province (Asy-Syarqiyah) during my ethnographic fieldwork in Saudi from 2014 to 2016. The complete results of the findings will appear in my forthcoming book from I.B. Tauris, entitled Saudi Arabia and Indonesian Networks: Migration, Education and Islam.

(13.) This impression is based on my numerous conversations with educated Saudis, including my Saudi friends and colleagues.

(14.) See the organization's website at

(15.) The deal was signed by Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan Abdulaziz Al Saud and Indonesian Lt. Gen. (ret.) Sjafrie Sjamsoeddin (now, former deputy minister of defense). On the reportage of the joint conference on the DCA, see Santosa (2014).

(16.) Part of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.


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Author:Qurtuby, Sumanto Al; Aldamer, Shafi
Publication:Asian Perspective
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDO
Date:Jan 1, 2018
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