Authors: Dr Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Yeta Purnama*
Recently, the relationship between the UAE and Indonesia has been under the spotlight after Prince Mohammad bin Zayed named a street in Abu Dhabi Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, after the current Indonesian president, as a token of appreciation for his attempts to strengthen relationships between both countries. The street passes by the National Exhibition Centre and a number of Diplomatic Representative Offices in Abu Dhabi.
The government in Abu Dhabi mentioned that the decision to name a street after Jokowi is to honour the Indonesian president for enhancing bilateral relations between Indonesia and the UAE.
The recent event, nonetheless, was only the latest example of how in its growing ties with Indonesia, the UAE has been using soft-power as a tool to strengthen its political and economic ties with the nation.
In recent years, the UAE, with its ‘Look East’ policy due to the growing instability in the Gulf region, has been interested in strengthening ties with Asian countries such as China and the ASEAN member states.
For the UAE, Indonesia’s geographical position as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and a G20 member makes it a worthwhile target. Besides being an appealing target for investment, the country, which has a population of more than 250 million, is a very attractive consumer market for Emirati exports.
Jakarta’s strategic location also provides the Emirates with an opening to boost its presence in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
Consequently, the bilateral relations between the UAE and Indonesia have been improving significantly in various sectors. This year alone, their respective governments signed 16 agreements, whilst businesses from Jakarta and Abu Dhabi endorsed 11 other agreements.
Those agreements, which are perceived to be the biggest in Indonesian history, consist of five government-to-government agreements in the fields of religion, education, agriculture, health and counterterrorism. They also involve 11 business-to-business deals in various sectors, including oil and gas, petrochemicals, ports, telecommunications and research. The estimated total value of this investment stands at USD 22.9 billion, or approximately 314.9 trillion rupiahs.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE and Indonesia also established a travel corridor between both countries, in effect from July this year, to facilitate official business and diplomatic trips. The travel arrangement is part of ongoing efforts by both countries to accelerate economic ties and people-to-people exchanges.
Beyond the economic sector, the UAE-Indonesia has also strengthened cooperation in the defence sector. In February this year, the Indonesian defence minister, Prabowo Subianto visited Abu Dhabi to sign an agreement in the fields of ammunition, drone manufacturing, military hardware and aerospace.
Against the backdrop of any potential economic downturn in China as well as the US and Europe caused by Beijing’s trade war with Washington and now the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE has made efforts to find alternative partners. Indonesia appears to be on the list.
While these economic ties have been widely reported, what is less known is that the UAE has been utilising cultural efforts in its ties with Indonesia. The naming of its street after Jokowi is only the latest example.
In 2019, for example, the UAE announced that it would establish a mosque in Solo, the birthplace of President Jokowi.
The construction of this mosque would follow the architecture of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Both countries have claimed that the mosque would be the centre of tolerance in Indonesia.
To complement the mosque, the two countries also plan to carry out exchanges among imams, religious leaders, scholars, politicians, academics and other religious figures to discuss how to strengthen religious moderation which promotes tolerance.
The construction of this mosque will start in December this year and is expected to be completed in roughly eighteen months.
In the early months of the pandemic, the UAE also sent substantial amounts of aid to Indonesia for the prevention and control of the novel coronavirus in Indonesia. This equipment was expected to help around 20,000 medical personnel to deal with COVID-19 cases.
The countries have also signed a cooperation agreement on education. It is anticipated that such partnerships would help overcome the existing linguistic-cultural barriers by familiarising Emirati and Indonesian professionals with each other’s societal norms and customs, methods of performing business, as well as national and institutional interests.
Bilateral relations that continue to improve in a positive way signify that Indonesia is one of the UAE’s closest partners in Southeast Asia.
Moreover, the use of soft-power is one of the tools used to complement the flourishing relationships.
There will, however, be obstacles that may prevent Abu Dhabi’s cultural efforts in Indonesia, especially with its recent decision to normalise relations with Israel, which is in contrast to Indonesia’s support for the Palestinian cause.
*Yeta Purnama is a student at Universitas Islam Indonesia.