Indonesia And The Middle East: Renewed Relations In Waiting – OpEd

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On October 19, 2020, a street in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates was given the name Joko Widodo. The move appears to have been done to honour the president of Indonesia and commemorate the ties between Indonesia and the UAE, which in recent years has been experiencing significant growth in various sectors.

Both countries are not only gradually becoming strong economic partners but have also signed cooperation agreements in security and the socio-cultural sphere. 

In the midst of Indonesia’s growing cooperation with the UAE, its overall relations with other countries in the Middle East remains limited. This is surprising, given that they were actually close partners for centuries.

Historically, the relationship between Indonesia and the Middle East existed in pre-Islamic times. The route used to transport commodities passed through the Spice Route, which starts from Maluku across the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea through Sinai to get to the Mediterranean and the coast of southern Europe. Goods that were traded were mainly spices that were believed to cure diseases and make food taste delicious. 

This trade cooperation which was called the Age of Commerce increased when the Islamic kingdoms appeared. However, this trading system did not last long when the arrival of the European nations (Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British) applied a trade monopoly.

Middle Eastern governments were some of the earliest countries to recognise Indonesia’s independence and staunch supporters of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which participated in the 1955 Bandung Conference. In addition, they have also frequently met in several multilateral organisations, such as the United Nations and Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC).

Indonesia and the Middle East also see each other as religious partners. Due to a shared Islamic identity, Indonesia’s ties with the region, especially with Saudi Arabia, are dominated by people-to-people exchanges as many Indonesian citizens perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage each year. Additionally, many Indonesian students are studying in the Middle East and vice-versa. 

Despite this, the two have had limited cooperation. During the Suharto government, Indonesia did not really see the Middle East as a partner. As a result, only a few cooperation programmes were carried out by the Middle East and Indonesia. At the same time, it began to prefer cooperation with global powers, such as the US, various European countries, and recently China.

Indonesia had tried to attract more investors from the Middle East. However, many of these investments were cancelled, such as Qatar’s planned investment in constructing a refinery. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also made investment promises but failed to follow up.

Indonesia’s attempt to attract investors from the Middle East is increasingly difficult for several reasons, for instance changing economic policies and global dynamics.

Various conflicts in the Middle East have also been obstacles, which are made more complicated by the global recession, as well as the growing geopolitical competition between China and the US, which often result in the oil price falling and an economic recession.

Nonetheless, in the midst of these barriers, Indonesia and the Middle East actually have many reasons to strengthen their cooperation further.

Indonesia’s geographical position as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and a G-20 member can become an attractive place for countries from the Middle East to invest.

Meanwhile, with a population of over 250 million, Indonesia is a crucial market for Middle Eastern exports. As prospects appear to be generally positive, both should attempt to strengthen economic ties, which include the creation of free trade agreements.

The Middle Eastern countries could also see Indonesia as a significant prospective market for their petroleum exports. With petroleum demand plummeting following the COVID-19 pandemic and prospects remaining grim for the majority of the developed world, the oil-producing Middle Eastern states have turned their attention toward a developing Asia, which is now one of the world’s fastest growing energy markets. Once a major oil exporter, Indonesia now consumes as much energy as it produces. As the region holds the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, the Middle East could be the major supplier of Indonesia’s increasing demand for energy.

Besides economic cooperation, Indonesia’s strategic location also offers the Middle Eastern governments a hub to expand themselves politically and economically in Asia and the Pacific. With no sign to an end to the instability in the Middle East, it should be no surprise that some regional countries see Southeast Asia as a shrewd alternative.

At the same time, for Indonesia, the Middle East could be a large untapped market and profitable investment destination.

The ties could also be facilitated by a shared stance on several issues, such as the ongoing conflict in Syria and the Palestinian cause.

Indonesia could also be considered as a potential partner to help mediate some of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. As there have never been direct conflicts or issues between Indonesia and the regional countries, Indonesia could therefore be well placed for involvement in conflict mediation in the region.

Overall, Indonesia and the Middle East have many shared aims, interests and potential opportunities which should encourage them to strengthen their cooperation. 

*Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a senior lecturer at Universitas Islam Indonesia, and M. Habib Pashya, a student at Universitas Islam Indonesia.

M Habib Pashya

M Habib Pashya is a Master's student at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). His research focuses on China's foreign policy, Indonesia's foreign policy, and US-Taiwan-China relations.

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