The immense power of Islam's centre

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 August, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 August, 2004, 12:00am

Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has recently returned from a successful tour of three important western capitals - Washington, Paris and London. In all three, much was made of Malaysia's ability to manage civil society issues and multiracial politics, as well as a majority Muslim population.

Given the acute failure of US-led initiatives in the Middle East, many American policymakers are wondering whether Malaysia, with its democracy, high growth rates and remarkable peacefulness, could be a model for the Arab world. Certainly, President George W. Bush's grand plans for a democratic Middle East could do with a success story to back up his viewpoint.

However, having just returned from an umrah (mini-Haj) in Saudi Arabia, I would caution the optimists in Washington. Malaysia does not possess the key to unlocking the Arab world. If anything, the influence works the other way. For countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, on the periphery of the Islamic world, the challenge, if any, is to balance and moderate the Arab - and especially the Saudi - impact on lives and politics.

Southeast Asian Muslims share the faith, but with our cultural roots in Hinduism, Buddhism and animism, we have precious little in common with our brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

Still, my intense and exhilarating experience in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina has made me realise the immense power of the kingdom.

Its reach is twofold: the first is oil. With close to 25 per cent of known global reserves, Saudi Arabia remains a vital reservoir for future economic growth. The second is all too often overlooked, but in time will be more important: Saudi Arabia remains the linchpin of the Islamic world. Imagine, for example, the power of the imams of the two main mosques in Mecca and Medina. For decades, they have been in a position to define the tenets of Islamic orthodoxy, promoting their own Wahabi interpretations.

Moreover, Saudi ulama (scholars) are able to voice their concerns through their prayers that reach out to hundreds of thousands of Muslims every day, while millions conduct the Haj every year. While I was there, I noticed the overwrought tone of the imams' prayers. Given the possibility of attacks against the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the likelihood of military intervention in Sudan and the US-led occupation of Iraq, the ulama's sense of perceived threats cannot be underestimated.

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of transition. After decades of near-total control, the ruling Saud family is faced with numerous critical challenges. While the kingdom is desperately trying to adjust to the altered circumstances, time is short.

There are external pressures from the Americans, who see the country as a centre for radicalism and terrorism, and want immediate reform. In addition, it has been unable to create a resilient non-oil economy. As a result, its fortunes are harnessed to the oscillations of the oil market.

Such dislocations create enormous strains. Currently, the government is trying to reduce mounting unemployment and an unhealthy dependence on foreign labour. However, most locals resent being forced into menial jobs.

On the political front, the long-term alliance between the royal family and the ulama is fraying. Allegations of corruption and nepotism are rife. The absence of a genuine political discourse has driven the opposition - much of which is genuine and moderate - underground. But most Saudis are too comfortable to take to the streets. And while the level of resentment is real, the likelihood of an Iranian-style revolution is minimal.

For one billion Muslims, a smooth and gradual liberalisation of Saudi Arabia is infinitely preferable to a democratic 'big bang'. Moreover, it is foolish to think that Saudi Arabia, with its own challenges, can learn from Malaysia, or anywhere else. Mr Bush's grand strategies will have to wait: evolution is better than revolution.

Karim Raslan is a lawyer and writer based in Kuala Lumpur'