The king of Saudi Arabia has arrived in Indonesia on the first leg of a month-long tour of Asia accompanied by one of the largest entourages assembled for a diplomatic trip.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, 81, arrived today at a military airbase in the capital Jakarta in his private jet. It is the first visit to the world’s most populous Muslim country by a Saudi monarch in almost half a century.
He descended onto the runway on a an escalator, to be met by President Widodo and was then escorted along a red carpet into a limousine.
King Salman, who acceded to the throne on the death of his brother King Abdullah in 2015, is reported to have packed 459 tonnes of luggage for his Asia tour, including two cars, and is travelling with an entourage of up to 1,500 people.
It is a display of ostentation familiar to those who follow the family. The Saudi monarchy boasts a wealth of $1.4 trillion, making them the richest royal family on the planet. It is shared between about 10,000 princes, many of whom use their riches to fund lavish lifestyles.
King Salman’s yacht, moored in the Spanish resort of Marbella, is the length of a football field and features a banqueting hall. The family is alleged to have spent $30 million on one holiday in the Maldives in 2014, during which the king (who was at that time a prince) was escorted by 100 bodyguards.
Writing in 2012, a former driver for the female members of the royal family claimed that they pay for everything in cash, and travel with a chest stuffed with up to $1 million in $100 bills.
Even the crash in global oil prices seems to have done little to quell the Saudis’ spending sprees. Last year a Paris estate agent reported that they had sold a number of apartments in the centre of the city to members of the Saudi royal family.
The Indonesian presidential palace in the hill town of Bogor is the obvious place to entertain a guest as important as King Salman, but certain hasty adjustments were required.
Traditional paintings showing bare-breasted maidens were hastily taken down – a symbol of the gulf of cultural differences dividing the Saudi king from the southeastern countries which he is now touring.
Despite their shared Muslim faith, Indonesians – with their tolerant and inclusive culture, in which Islam mingles with older native traditions – have more in common with Christian Europeans, than the austere rulers of Saudi.
Ninety per cent of Indonesia’s 250 million people are Muslims but compared to the fundamentalist forms practised in the Middle East and Pakistan, Indonesian Islam has traditionally been tolerant.
In the past 15 years, however, stricter and more conservative religious practices have been established. In Aceh, Indonesia’s most devout province, this has taken the form of sharia, enforced by religious police, and punishable by caning and prison sentences. Schools in some regions have imposed religious observances. Girls and female teachers are increasingly required to wear full-length jilbabs; some begin the day with readings from the Koran.
Jakarta’s Christian, ethnically Chinese governor, Basuki Tjahja Purnama, has been charged with blasphemy in a trial which has brought into the open old and sometimes violent divisions between the Muslim majority and practitioners of other religions.
So why this visit, and why now? As Indonesia’s bluntly spoken vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, said today: “It’s because he’s rich.”
Indonesia has had tense relations with Riyadh – its citizens are banned from working there as domestic servants, although hundreds of thousands still do — after the execution of an Indonesian maid in 2011. But there are important common interests between an oil-based economy seeking to diversify into other fields, and a huge diverse archipelagic state with a hunger for investment.
The two countries are expected to sign ten agreements in various fields including religion (Indonesia wants permission to send more people on the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca), education and science.
Jakarta hopes to win $25 billion of new investment. On the king’s previous stop, in Malaysia, the oil company Saudi Aramco agreed to pay $7 billion for a half stake in a Malaysian oil refinery.
King Salman will also visit Brunei, Japan, China, the Maldives and Jordan in the next few weeks.