By James M. Dorsey
Saudi attitudes towards the plight of thousands of illegal Rohingya in the kingdom fleeing persecution in Myanmar and squalid Bangladeshi refugee camps help explain Saudi support for China’s brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang.
For more than half a year, Saudi Arabia has been deporting large numbers of Rohingya who arrived in the kingdom either on pilgrimage visas or using false travel documents, often the only way they were able to leave either Myanmar or Bangladesh.
The expulsions of Rohingya as well as hundreds of thousands of other foreign workers coupled with the introduction of fees on their dependents and restrictions on the sectors in which they can be employed are part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to reform the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy and increase job opportunities.
The success of Prince Mohammed’s reforms rests to a large extent on his ability to reduce an overall 12.7 percent unemployment rate that jumps to 25.8 percent among its youth, who account for more than half of the population.
Threatening up to 250,000 Rohingya believed to be residing in Saudi Arabia, the expulsions contrast starkly with condemnations by the kingdom as well as the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) of Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya.
The OIC last month called for filing a case against Myanmar at the International Court of Justice for its alleged violations of the Rohingya’s human rights. Some 750,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in recent years where they are housed in refugee camps.
Saudi Arabia has donated millions of dollars in aid for the refugees and has said it is “gravely concerned and condemns the policy of repression and forced displacement carried out by the government of Myanmar against the Rohingya minority."
The deportations together with Saudi endorsement of the clampdown in Xinjiang that has put an estimated one million Uyghurs in re-education camps, where they are indoctrinated to prioritize communist party ideology and President Xi Jinping thought above their Islamic faith, suggests that the kingdom is not willing to compromise its economic interests even if they call into question its moral claim to leadership of the Islamic world.
The Saudi approach constitutes a double-edged sword. On the one hand, its leadership role is bolstered. A majority of Muslim countries reluctant to criticize China take heart from the fact that the custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, has taken the lead in shielding China from Muslim criticism.
On the other hand, China like other Muslim nations is making a risky bet in which it could end up on the wrong side of history.
While there are no signs that hopelessness is fuelling widespread radicalization among the Rohingya, analysts suggest that in the Bangladeshi camps “almost every factor identified by radicalisation experts can be found, to a greater or lesser degree… It would only take a very small percentage of them (the refugees) to be radicalised for there to be a major security problem.”
The emergence of Rohingya militancy with Saudi treatment of members of the group constituting one of the grievances could make the kingdom a target.
Similarly, if history is anything to go by, Saudi Arabia and Muslim countries, are betting against the odds that China will succeed to Sinicize Turkic Muslims and ensure that growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Central Asian nations with close cultural and ethnic links to Xinjiang is kept in check.
Adrian Zenz, a leading scholar on Chinese policy towards religion and minorities, has argued that past attempts to Sinicize minorities have failed.
He said his research among Sinicized Tibetans showed that even assimilated Tibetans could become champions of the very ethnic identity they supposedly had renounced.
Similarly, Mihrigul Tursun, an Uyghur activist released from a re-education camp, told the US Congress that “my experience in this state program actually made me more conscious of my ethnic identity.”
Describing the Chinese clampdown in Xinjiang as an “upgraded version of the Cultural Revolution,” Mr. Zenz recently noted that Tibetan nomads and Christian villagers were being forced to replace their altars and depictions of Jesus with images of Chinese leaders, including Mr. Xi.
Mr. Zenz’s reference to Tibetans and Christians highlights the fact that non-Muslim countries have been equally reluctant to put their money where their mouth is in condemnations of China’s assault on religion that go beyond Islam and are part of a larger attempt to replace religion with adherence to the country’s communist party and reverence of its party and political leaders.
Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is walking a tightrope in balancing its national interests with expectations of its role as a leader of the Muslim world.
While needy Rohingya and other illegal Muslim workers were detained and deported to an uncertain future that was likely to fuel despair and hopelessness, Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif bin Abdulaziz al-Sheikh announced that King Salman would host for this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca 200 relatives of the victims of the attacks by a white supremacist on two mosques in New Zealand’s Christchurch. Fifty people died in the attacks.
Clearly designed to project the kingdom as a generous supporter of Muslim causes and improve its image tarnished by the war in Yemen and last year’s killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mr. Al-Sheikh said the invitation was part of Saudi Arabia’s counter-terrorism effort.
While public sentiment towards the clampdown in Xinjiang remains unclear despite vocal Saudi support for the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, indications are that a significant segment of the kingdom’s population remain wedded to its ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.
A recent poll on Twitter showed that a majority of Saudis was opposed to the proposed halt to forcing stores to close during prayers, a key part of the kingdom’s tradition of enforced public religiosity.
Adherence to ultra-conservative norms raises the question whether those segments of the Saudi population may be more empathetic to the plight of the Uyghurs.
As part of its effort to co-opt the Chinese Diaspora and counter criticism, China has sought to woo Saudi Arabia’s ethnic Chinese community. To do so, China’s consulate in the Red Sea port of Jeddah hosts events not only in Mandarin and Arabic but also Uyghur, according to Mohammed Al-Sudairi, a Saudi China scholar.
Mr. Al-Sudairi attributed China’s focus on Saudi Uyghurs, one of the largest and wealthy Chinese Turkic diaspora communities, “to the role of this community as a stronghold for anti-Chinse and anti-CPC (Communist Party of China) sentiment in Saudi Arabia, and one that has had some influence in shaping Saudi elite and popular perceptions toward the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and CPC.”
That focus suggests that public sentiment towards the plight of Muslims in places like Myanmar and Xinjiang may be more layered than positions put forward by Muslim leaders.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, an adjunct senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture.