Muhammad Ahalla Tsauro and Firmanda Taufiq – In November last year, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed inaugurated the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Solo, Central Java, marking a new phase of Indonesia-UAE relations.
Ties between Indonesia and UAE have been getting stronger over recent years, and go far beyond the symbolism of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Jokowi and Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (commonly known by his initials, MBZ) share a close personal relationship, and they and their ministers have visited each other frequently.
One of the high points of this growing relationship was the signing of the Indonesia-United Arab Emirates Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IUAE-CEPA) in Abu Dhabi in July 2022. This built on the 16 different memoranda of understanding and collaboration agreements signed in 2020, and Jokowi's visit to the UAE in 2021, when he reportedly secured $US32 billion in investment commitments. Several ambitious new UAE-Indonesian projects have been announced, including a joint effort to build the world's largest floating photovoltaic solar power plant.
While relations between Indonesia and the UAE have been getting stronger over recent times, the two countries have ties extending back several decades. Indonesia was among the first countries to recognise UAE soon after it was founded as an independent state in 1971. The countries like to state that their shared identity as Muslim-majority countries with significant ethnic and religious minorities has played a role in shaping their close relations.
Although almost all UAE citizens are Muslim, a significant proportion of non-citizen residents (who now comprise more than 80% of the population) are non-Muslims. Because of its diverse society, the UAE conducts a range of interfaith initiatives to maintain social harmony.
Indeed, the UAE and Indonesia share a reputation for practicing and promoting more "moderate" forms of Islam. This has been a particular focus of the Jokowi government, which has actively sought to supress conservative political Islam, especially after the mass mobilisations of 2016 and 2017. It is also an approach that is largely in line with the vision of Indonesia's mainstream Islamic organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.
Scholars have described how Middle Eastern states such as UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Iran are struggling for religious influence in Indonesia, the largest Muslim society in the world. The UAE has stated explicitly that it aims to strengthen religious collaboration in the country. Similarly, Saudi Arabia has for several decades attempted to influence religious education in Indonesia. The Kingdom has provided funds and many scholarships to Indonesian Muslims with the specific goal of disseminating its conservative religious ideology.
For the time being, this is a battle in which UAE appears to have the upper hand. During his 2021 visit to UAE, Jokowi said: "I see that religious moderation and diversity in the UAE are widely respected. And that is the area of cooperation we would like to explore more because we both share the closeness in the vision and characters of moderate Islam that propagates tolerance."
The construction of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is one of the more tangible signs of the growing religious collaboration between Indonesia and the UAE. The mosque, located in the heart of Solo city, is a replica of the similarly named mosque in Abu Dhabi, and has been fully funded by the UAE, as it has done with other mosques around Indonesia.
In addition, the UAE have also donated funds for Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) in several parts of Indonesia. Unlike Saudi Arabia, however, the UAE's funds are not necessarily linked to the transmission of its religious ideology. The mosques and schools that UAE supports tend to represent a symbolic contribution toward strengthening cooperation and relations between Indonesia and the UAE, rather than the importing of doctrine.
While UAE and Indonesia may share similar visions of moderate Islam, there is one area in which they differ significantly. In August 2020 the UAE officially normalised diplomatic relations with Israel. Indonesia has long been a consistent supporter of Palestinian independence and this is unlikely to change. So far, however, this point of difference has not led to any significant tension in the relationship.
But it is important not to overstate the ideological reasons for the growing partnership between Indonesia and UAE. Economic factors are likely more significant. On the Indonesian side, Jokowi is desperate to increase foreign investment, particularly for his pet project – the new capital city, Nusantara, in East Kalimantan. He has been actively seeking investment from many Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UAE.
The UAE has the largest investment stake in Indonesia of all them. In the wake of tensions between the US and China, the UAE is seeking to diversify its trade partners, and Indonesia's growing economy has made it increasingly attractive. Indonesia and UAE have said that they hope their trade agreement will increase bilateral trade to US$10 billion by 2030 from US$4 billion in 2021. And fortunately for Jokowi, UAE has even committed to investing in the new capital.
It is difficult to say how much the growing relationship between UAE and Indonesia might shape Indonesian perspectives on the Arab world. Saudi Arabia has historically been the dominant Gulf state in Indonesia. While the extent to which Saudi Arabia has influenced Indonesian understandings and practices of Islam is often overstated, it has certainly attempted to promote conservative religious norms. It can only be a good thing for Indonesia to see a greater diversity of religious views coming from the Gulf states.