When the camera panned across the heads of state, the phalanx of potentates and dictators of Muslim nations, to whom Donald Trump paid homage when addressing the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh in May, there was a face familiar to Australians: that of the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo. And he was looking, it must be said, more than slightly uncomfortable — and the reasons behind that should be very, very concerning to every Australian.
The first part of Trump’s speech was well put together, as far its motherhood statements went, and was a coded warning to his Sunni Muslim audience against the funding of radicalism and fundamentalists in the Arab world.
But then it all went tits up when he turned to one nation specifically — Iran — as the source of “evil”, of promoting terrorism then, erroneously conflating Iran with the group that calls itself the Islamic State.
For historical reasons under the realpolitik umbrella — including regional security (read: Israel) and oil dependency in the days of OPEC supremacy and energy price-setting — Saudi Arabia was the least worst of the regions larger despots. Although history has shown us that few in the West, at that time, really understood the situation or the inevitable implications that became apparent a few years later with the Iranian revolution: fundamentalism swept the Middle East’s more modern, progressive and vibrant nation — certainly compared to the sexist neanderthals of the al-Saud family and their kleptocratic, authoritarian allies in the Sunni world. Trump still seems to trapped in 1979 and made a huge error in overtly taking sides in a centuries-long, inter-religious power struggle anyone with a quarter of a brain would not touch with several barge poles. Yet there he was, bathing in the glow of lavish attention from a room full of many of the world’s most most appalling people.
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Two weeks later, the Saudis and their brothers in arms in Doha, Bahrain and Egypt suddenly put the screws on Shia Qatar, comprehensively isolating the country. It was a warning and still unresolved, but we might quite possibly have seen the prelude scene-setter for a return to a wider version of the Iran/Iraq war Sunni/Shia conflict.
Now, the sequel is coming, produced and directed by the al-Saud family and their cronies.
The same week as Qatar was isolated, the so-called Islamic State bombed two Tehran landmarks, only weeks after Iranian moderate Hossein Rouhani was re-elected comprehensively as President (elections are like kryptonite to the al-Sauds and most of their client states and mates), effectively making a liar of Donald Trump for accusing Iran of funding IS.
Saudi Arabia — and here is where we circle back to embattled Jokowi — has spent the past five years pouring untold billions into south-east and south Asia’s Muslim nations: Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia — as well as the India, the world’s second biggest Muslim country after Indonesia. Such funds will inevitably have wended their way to the southern Philippine province of Mindanao, whose second city Marawi is now under siege by an IS-linked terror group.
Saudi Arabia’s leader King Salman — the 114th progeny of the nation’s prodigious founder on the throne — has significantly amped up his efforts, visiting Malaysia in February (the first by a Saudi leader for a decade). There, Salman was received by Malaysia leader Najib Razak, who is mired in a $1 billion 1MDB state bribery scandal.
Najib has become far more accommodating of fundamentalists, and he had supported a sharia law bill before it was downgraded to a private member’s bill — but nonetheless is still on the roster to go to Parliament in coming months. He has managed the impossible: to bring former PM Mahathir Mohamad and his one-time deputy and protege Anwar Abrahim, whom he tossed in jail on trumped-up sodomy charges, back together to stand against Najib, Mahatir’s second protege.
Then, in March, Salman went on “holiday” to Bali with 1500 of his nearest and dearest, popped into Jakarta to a rapturous reception fit for an oil king, and dropped a few billion in investments. Of course there are economic reasons behind the Saudi’s Asian shopping spree: they are diversifying investments, shoring up oil clients (especially China). But along with infrastructure and company investments come investments in the famous Muslim pilgrimages to the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina — the Hajj — and most potently investing in schools mosques and hard-line clerics.
The country recently announced it would build 500 mosques in Bangladesh — the world’s third-largest Muslim nation. Bangladesh kept out fundamentalists due to a long-standing agreement with India. But recently the country’s autocratic leader Sheikh Hasina Wazed, also at Trump’s speech, struck a deal with India, looking after its remote north-east corner neighbouring Bangladesh in exchange for freedom to “deal” with the Saudis. Many see Bangladesh as a potential hotbed of recruitment in an impoverished country with 180 million people.
Right now, all we are getting from the Turnbull government is unwavering support for one of its key allies in the mission of Middle East adventurism, joined so enthusiastically by the US deputy sheriff J.W. Howard. No-action Turnbull — or, at the very least, his own Foreign Minister Julie Bishop — is signing up as a paid supporter of the country that effectively funded al-Qaeda and IS. Welcome to the War on Terror.
When asked specifically by Crikey about Australia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the increasingly non-transparent, taxpayer-funded Department of Foreign Affairs had this to say, via a spokesperson:
“Australia has a friendly bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia, underscored by strong trade and education links. Two-way trade with Saudi Arabia was $3 billion in 2015-16 and there are approximately 8,000 Saudi students studying in Australia. Minister Ciobo recently concluded a successful visit to Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a business delegation.”
The key concern I raised about Saudi-funded mosques in south-east Asia was quite simply ignored.
So, for now, lets help the Saudi economy so it can fund even more radical mullahs in Java and spread its own version of soft power across the region (China has no monopoly on that, despite what the ABC and The Age think), which will, quite possibly accelerate — and this is not a drill — regime change in our “most important relationship”.
But imagine the confected outrage when the first Australian becomes a victim of Saudi-funded radicals kidnapping or bombing south-east Asia — and it cannot be too far away. Imagine the rhetoric about “hunting down terrorists to the ends of the Earth” or some such that will not name check good King Salman and his family. Be alarmed, men and women of Australian, because your government ain’t alert.
What Trump did not say, but the US does know, was that it is Saudi money, and its fundamental Wahhabist ideology, that is behind IS — and its ironically bitter rival al-Qaeda. And that it’s Saudi money that is funding the other side in the fighting in Yemen, the latest proxy war for supremacy in the Middle East between the Sunni and Shia Muslim radicals, between, respectively Saudi Arabia and Iran, which at least has democratic elections in May, where a reformer prevailed in a landslide over a radical.