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Muslim Causes Vs National Interest : Muslim Nations Make Risky Bets
By Dr James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
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. ##