[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] S [/yt_dropcap]audi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain – a small Shiite-majority State governed by the Sunnis – Eastern Libya of Haftar and the “Council” of Cyrenaica, the Maldives, Yemen and the Mauritius have all broken off any political, diplomatic and economic relations with the Qatar Emirate, governed by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani.
It is not the first time that Saudi Arabia interferes heavily in the internal affairs of the Emirate. In fact, on June 26, 2013, the very strong Saudi pressures forced the then Prime Minister Hamad bin Yassim Al Thani to resign.
The airlines of the aforementioned Sunni nations have also announced they will no longer operate flights to Doha, Qatar’s capital. The ships of the aforementioned countries do no longer dock in the Emirate’s ports and, above all, the small State’s food supplies, 50% of which are shipped by land by Saudi Arabia, are no longer delivered to Doha.
Seven-eight hundred articulated lorries that do not supply food to Qatar from its only land border and remain blocked in Saudi Arabia.
Hence the Emirate cannot hold out for long, and not even Iran, which is very cautious and does not want to create a casus belli right now, has so far shown any interest in replacing Saudi Arabia in preserving Qatar’s food supplies and commercial communications.
If Iran did so, it would automatically agree with Saudi Arabia and other countries that follow the block of Qatar ordered by Saudi Arabia.
It is worth recalling that so far Doha has not been economically affected by the many Middle East tensions. It hosts the Al Jazeera satellite network, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Sheikh al-Qaradawi, who resides in the Emirate after being expelled from Egypt.
Qatar is the largest exporter of natural gas in the world and one of the top ones for oil, which tempts many people and, above all, could become the point of reference for some smaller Sunni producers and for a new economic and extraction negotiation between Sunnis and Shiites.
It should be noted that Al Jazeera was born from the ashes of the BBC Arab section.
In fact, al-Thani studied in Great Britain, as all the Jordanian royal family and it is by no mere coincidence that the Hashemite Kingdom of Joardan has not followed – at least for the time being – the hard line of Saudi Arabia and its allies.
Jordan is aware that it would only stand to lose in a Middle-East bellum omnium contra omnes. Moreover, in the division of the work underlying the new Saudi-US alliance, Jordan focuses on the Iraqi-Syrian axis, while the Sunni central bloc is moving rapidly against Iran.
Furthermore, in one single hour of trading, the Emirate stock market has dropped by 7.6% and Qatar’s Central Bank share prices have fallen by 5.7%.
The Emirate has also raised foreign and domestic loans for a total of 200 billion Us dollars to fund the new infrastructure network that shall be ready within 2022, the year of the Doha World Cup.
There will not even be the Gulf Council Football Cup scheduled for this year.
The Egyptian banks do no longer deal with Qatar’s and the Emirate’s currency is no longer accepted, traded and exchanged in the Sunni countries. The Egyptian entrepreneurs are rapidly disinvesting in Qatar.
As is always the case, the economic war begins before the military war.
In all likelihood, it is the beginning of a real war that will hit Qatar indirectly and the Islamic Republic of Iran directly.
After Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on May 20, the first US foreign visit of the new US President and the beginning of a historic alliance – much stronger and sounder than the one that has already characterized Saudi and US bilateral relations since the First Gulf War – this act against Qatar is the first action of the “Sunni NATO” proposed by Trump.
The political and propaganda foundation is trite and largely counterfactual: Iran “favours terrorism”.
The pot calling the kettle black. In fact the main States that have been supporting the “sword jihad”, at least since 1996, are Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
According to some US sources, Saudi Arabia has spent at least 100 billion US dollars to spread Wahhabism, the Sunni tradition characterizing the Saudi Kingdom.
Just think that – in its 70 years of life – the USSR spent only 7 billion US dollars to spread Soviet Communism abroad.
2,500 Saudis are supposed to be still in Daesh-Isis ranks,
According to Iranian sources, the Iranians who joined Daesh-Isis are only 23 and are only Sunni Kurds.
As clearly shown by the Wikileaks of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mails, everybody knows that Saudi Arabia is a careful and generous funder of the Syrian-Iraqi Caliphate and it is strange that today Iran is blamed instead of Saudi Arabia.
Conversely, it is much more likely that Saudi Arabia, which now experiences a well known depletion of its largest and “oldest” oil wells, wants to immediately settle its accounts with the Iranian competitor.
According to data of March 2017, Iran currently exports as many as 3,37 million barrels a day as against 10,000 barrels per day before the P5 + 1 agreement.
The occasion making the riots between Saudi Arabia and Qatar occur was a note written last May by Emir al-Thani praising Israel and Iran – a note that Qatar’s news agency had defined fake news, as is today customary practice.
Nevertheless, later the Emir of Qatar congratulated Hassan Rouhani, the re-elected Iranian president, in an official phone call.
It was really too much for Saudi Arabia which, however, should know that Qatar and Iran have long been managing – on an equal footing – the largest natural gas field in the world, namely the South Pars-North Dome, even though the Iranian media criticize Qatar for the excessive gas extraction. It should also know that the Iranian Pasdaran leaders have long been collaborating with the Emirate’s intelligence services and that Qatar did not criticized Iran’s interferences during the Shiite uprising in Bahrain in January 2011. Finally, it should also know that the two States have had normal diplomatic relations since the demarcation agreement signed with Shah Pahlavi in 1969.
Therefore it is obvious that all the Gulf countries, including Qatar, are deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear-conventional rearmament. In fact, all the Gulf Sunni powers, including Qatar, have already invested a total amount of 122 billion US dollars for rearming the region.
Hence realizing only today that the Emirate was a voice from outside, not following the herd of Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-Wahhabi hegemony, is really specious.
Also the United States should be more careful to take action against Qatar.
Al-Thani’s Emirate hosts the US Central Command, which is responsible for all US military operations and part of the intelligence ones for Afghanistan and the whole Middle East.
The US Air Force Command operating against Daesh-Isis is just outside the Emirate’s air base at Al-Udeid.
The United States knows all too well that Qatar has funded some Islamist groups and, above all, the Muslim Brotherhood that, in relation to the current jihad, plays the same role as the role played by the Eastern Communist Parties with regard to the Red Brigades or the Rote Armee Fraktion.
The Emirate, however, was also a very useful channel for the talks between the United States and the Taliban or other Islamist groups, as was the case with the liberation by the “Afghan students”’ of sergeant Bergdahl, who had been captured by the Taliban in 2009 and subsequently released in 2014.
Instead of mediating between Sunnis and Shiites, especially after Iran’s nuclear agreement of July 2014, the United States – and we fear even some of the most servile European allies – is even mounting fully useless tensions with Qatar only to follow their Saudi masters.
Conversely, in their meeting of May 20, the United States and Saudi Arabia drafted a document stating that Iran is the first sponsor of terrorism, which Qatar refused to sign, thus marking its end.
And creating the final casus belli with Iran, if nothing new emerges over the next few days.
An attack on Iran might come from Saudi Arabia itself, backed by Jordan on the sidelines, or, from a nuclear strike from the distant but nuclearized Pakistan, although we cannot rule out a Saudi-American naval block of the Persian Gulf to close communications and, above all, oil exports – as is already the case with Qatar.
Incidentally, a rise in oil price would currently be in the Saudi and US interest, but it would also favour Iran, which could sell its oil barrels to China – as it is already doing – and be paid in yuan, with the same trade logic of the current relations between Russia and China.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has long been giving orders and the United States is obeying them.
The Saudi lobby in the US establishment is much stronger than the Israeli one, that is much less powerful than it is believed.
From Henry Ford I, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf, to the Protestant and Puritan merchant banks, which have never hesitated to put obstacles in the way of Jewish finance, rarely avowed anti-Semitism has always been spreading in North American elites.
Colin Powell, the Secretary of State under George W. Bush’s Administration, was familiar with the Saudi Ambassador to Washington – and certainly the two Gulf Wars were better suited to the Saudi that the US strategic goals.
It is worth recalling that the Gulf strategic redesign, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, has really helped only one country, namely Iran.
Hence the United States eliminated a fierce enemy of Iran, with which the Shiites were fighting for ten years, and compressed the Taliban Sunni jihad, another deadly threat to the Shiite Republic of Iran.
Therefore, from now on, for the United States, Islamic terrorism (to which we never refers with its real name, jihad, which is a complex warlike technique, very different from Western war rationale) will be that of Hamas, which is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and is anyway funded by Iran, but also by the Sunni powers, and the Lebanese Hezb’ollah, which is certainly backed by Iran, but also by other Islamic and Sunni countries.
Hence, if the issue is “support to terrorism,” the United States should blame also and above all their Sunni allies, much more than they currently do with Iran and Qatar.
Therefore what would happen to the US Joint Command in the Emirate?
Does the United States think of transferring it, or rather, holding it hostage of Saudi Arabia?
Furthermore, Turkey signed a military alliance treaty with Qatar and pledged support for the Emirate if it were attacked.
And the Fifth US Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, another possible blackmail to the US in case of a Shiite-Sunni clash.
Obviously, considering the situation, an incident may occur at any time, especially between the US fleet and the Pasdaran small boats. There maritime areas are very narrow and Iran closely monitors the region: its large fleet of drones scans and patrols the ground and the movements of the troops.
Do we possibly want Turkey, NATO’s second Armed Force, to declare war on Saudi Arabia, with currently unimaginable consequences for the Alliance and the European economy?
It is really a nightmare to think about what would happen if a new oil crisis broke out in Europe, while there still persists the financial crisis originated in the United States in 2008, which shows no signs of abating.
According to the Financial Times, currently in North America, the burden of private and public debt is at record levels, even higher than those which caused the great financial crisis of 2008.
Indeed, the crisis had started in 2006 with the collapse of Lehman Brothers JP Morgan. Puritans vs. Jews.
American citizens have debt with credit cards to the tune of one trillion US dollars, and an additional trillion debt for student loans and also for buying houses and cars.
As from 2010 to date, US companies have debt amounting to 7.8 trillion US dollars and the aggregate debt – which is the sum of public and private debt – is even equal to 350% of GDP.
Just as the United States came out of the 1929 crisis only with World War II war expenses – and certainly not with the small Keynesian initiatives such as the Tennessee Valley Authority – today it could get out of the debt spiral and regain global strategic prominence only by starting a new great war, having the Middle East at its core.
A region that serves to contain Russia and China, regulate and control their economies and regionalize Europe and its euro, which is bothering the United States, as well as check where all the regional seas of the earth come, apart from Southeast Asia.
Nevertheless, currently the distribution of potentials is no longer that of the 1930s and 1940s and the strategic calculations described above may not provide the solution the United States desire.
India-UAE tourism and education linkages
In spite of the continued uncertainty with regard to the trajectory of the covid19 pandemic, globally, countries are trying to return to normalcy. Significantly, the performance of United Arab Emirates (UAE’s) tourism sector in the first quarter of 2022 was not just back to pre-covid levels, but actually managed to do better.
H.E. Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, Minister of State for Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium Enterprises and Chairman of the UAE Tourism Council highlighted these point while providing tourism figures for Q1 2022.Hotels received an estimated six million visitors in the first quarter of the year – a rise of 10% from 2019. Revenues for the first quarter of 2022, were AED (United Arab Emirates Dinar) 11 billion or USD 3 billion (2.9 billion) which was a jump of 20% from the first quarter of 2019.
The stellar performance of UAE’s tourism sector in the first quarter of 2022 is being attributed to a number of factors including two major events — the Dubai Expo 2020 and the World’s Coolest winter campaign.
In order to attract more visitors to the Dubai Expo 2020, UAE had also relaxed conditions for international travellers. The Emirate has also introduced new visitor visa categories with an eye on giving a boost to tourism. What is remarkable is that during the first quarter of 2022, average occupancy increased 25% from 3 nights to 4 nights and witnessed an 80% growth (no other country had such high occupancy rates)
The total number of tourists received was 4 million, and not surprisingly, Indian nationals along with tourists from UK, US and Russia accounted for a significant percentage of tourists to UAE. While other countries like Singapore have also opened their borders to international tourists, including Indians, and removed restrictions, the biggest advantage the UAE has is its geographical location – especially for tourists from the South Asian region. Given that the travelling time is less, even short breaks are possible.
Apart from this, getting a UAE visa is relatively easier than one for the west and even ASEAN countries. UAE also has enough to offer for families in terms of shopping, recreation etc. There is also a wide variety of options, as far as hotels are concerned. Since a significant number of Indians have business links or even offices in Dubai, in many cases holidays are coupled up with business trips. The fact that UAE hosts important cricketing events – in 2021 it hosted the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2021 and T20 world cup – will help it in attracting more Indian tourists in the future.
UAE is not only likely to continue to remain as a favoured tourist destination, but in the near future, it is also likely to attract more international students, especially from India. Apart from its geographical location, and the fact that it is home to a substantial population of South Asian expats, it is also home to a number of campuses of UK and US universities.
Most importantly with an eye on attracting qualified professionals and researchers, UAE has introduced a long term residency visa, dubbed as Golden Visa for researchers, medical professionals and those within the scientific and knowledge fields, and remarkable students. Here it would be pertinent to point out that UAE-India Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which came into effect earlier this month permits easier access for Indian engineers, IT professionals, accountancy professionals and nurses. The introduction of short term work visas will also help in attracting professionals from India.
In the past, one of the reasons why UAE lost out to other countries, in attracting professionals and students from South Asia (though the number of Indian professionals in UAE has been increasing in recent years), who preferred the West, Australia or Singapore, was the fact that UAE did not provide long term residency.
With the introduction of long-term visas, it is not only professionals, but even students who otherwise may have sought to pursue education in the west who will now look towards the UAE. One of the options, which students from India could go for is the dual degree program, which has been introduced by many UK universities, where they spend some time in UAE and the rest in UK. Here it would be pertinent to point out, that UAE universities are also offering scholarships with an eye on attracting international students. One of the provisions of the India-UAE Foreign Trade Agreement (FTA) which both countries signed earlier this year is that India will set up an IIT in Abu Dhabi.
The UAE has been seeking to re-invent for some years. A good example of this is the UAE Vision 2021, Dubai Vision 2030 and Abu Dhabi Vision 2030. The Gulf nation has been able not only to handle covid19 successfully, but with its innovative and visionary thinking it has been able to do remarkably well in attracting tourists. Its ability to think out of the box will enable it to emerge as an important economic hub. UAE is likely to not just remain a favoured tourist destination, but also could emerge as a top preference for Indian nationals to study and work.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days
These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.
Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.
Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.
Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.
Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.
The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.
Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.
His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.
Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.
Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.
Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.
The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.
Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”
Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”
Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”
The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.
Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.
Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.
In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.
Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.
Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.
Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.
Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.
In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message
When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.
Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.
The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”
Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.
Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.
Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.
However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.
The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.
Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.
Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”
The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.
The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.
Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”
Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”
Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.
The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.
The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.
It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.
Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.
The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.
Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”
Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.
The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.
However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.
Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.
The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.
In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.
Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.
The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.
Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.
That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.
Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.
Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.
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