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Saudi Arabia’s Colliding Interests in Myanmar

Saudi Arabia’s support for the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is expected to continue for some time.

Despite Aung San Suu Kyi’s decades-old image as an embattled political prisoner and proponent of ardent reform as an opponent of the previous military government in Myanmar, her new role as state councilor has resulted in criticism from a variety of quarters domestically and internationally, as she juggles her predisposition toward humanitarianism with a pragmatic approach to governing. Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) have been roundly criticized for their presumed complicity in what many international observers have deemed a process of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Rohingya minority residing in the country’s rural Rakhine State.

While advocacy on behalf of the Rohingya has come from predictable sources in the West, it has also come from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom started providing financial assistance to the Rohingya when the situation began deteriorating in 2012. With its valuable investments in Myanmar’s oil infrastructure, located largely within Rakhine, Riyadh has undoubtedly wished to hedge its bets and play both sides of the same coin. Since then, armed resistance from the Rohingya people toward the Burmese government, including a 2016 attack on security forces linked to funds from Saudi and Pakistani actors, has motivated an increased Burmese military presence in the region.

On numerous occasions, the United Nations as well as human rights organizations have documented abuses leveled against the Rohingya. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch released a report that identified widespread and systematic human rights violations targeting Myanmar’s Muslim citizens in Rakhine State. The report has been disputed by the government. Suu Kyi disagrees with the findings and has denied that the government is guilty of ethnic cleansing.

The roots of the violence in Rakhine State are multifaceted and rooted in British colonial officials’ failure to include the word “Rohingya” in censuses taken of the then-British colony, which was subsequently used as a means of falsely characterizing the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from neighboring regions, with no historical legitimacy in Burma. The former military regime and the current democratically-elected government have both denied the Rohingya full citizenship, strictly limiting basic freedoms of movement and suffrage. Suu Kyi finds herself in a precarious position, reemphasizing her support for non-violent political change, while at the same time referring to the Rohingya’s disrespect for the “Rule of Law” as a justification for a strong military presence in Rakhine.

Prior to 2009, Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah recognized the plight of the Rohingya and offered permanent residency for in excess of 250,000 Burmese Muslims, but Saudi authorities segregated many Burmese upon arrival to the kingdom. Most Burmese expatriates in the Gulf have worked low-skilled/low-pay jobs and have faced challenges similar to those of other poor Southeast Asian migrants in Saudi Arabia. Following the death of King Abdullah, King Salman detained 3,000 Rohingya families in Jeddah prisons and planned to deport them back to Myanmar for reasons that remain unclear.

SAUDI ARABIA AND MYANMAR

Such reversals have further complicated Riyadh’s policy toward the Rohingya. This year, Saudi officials announced the kingdom would accept a total of 190,000 Rohingya refugees over a four-year period, in conjunction with providing limited financial assistance to the Rohingya. In 2013, the Saudi government publicly condemned the Burmese government’s treatment of the Rohingya at a UN meeting — something it has rarely done. Perhaps the ability to lecture other countries about human rights was one of Saudi Arabia’s original objectives for having first become embroiled in the Rohingya issue.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia has been working with the Burmese and Chinese governments to industrialize natural resource production and distribution within Rakhine State. Saudi Arabia and its smaller Persian Gulf neighbors became deeply involved in Myanmar’s oil industry in 2011, when Riyadh and Beijing signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which China pledged to provide 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day through the just-completed Sino-Burma oil pipeline. The United Arab Emirates has also built roads and hotels to supplement Rakhine State’s booming oil industry, and in 2014, Qatar began transporting methane to China via Myanmar, further emphasizing the critical role of Burma in connecting China and the Arab Gulf states. Although Saudi Arabia has maintained its support for the Rohingya, other Gulf Cooperation Council members, such as Qatar, appear willing to ignore the situation altogether if it counteracts their wider regional strategy — particularly if doing so creates tension with China.

The Burmese government is unlikely to reverse its position on the Rohingya in the future — with or without Suu Kyi at the helm. By the same token, Saudi Arabia’s support for the Rohingya may well continue, to the extent that it does not jeopardize the kingdom’s business, commercial and investment interests in Myanmar, particularly at a time when officials in Riyadh are increasingly focused on securing greater cooperation from members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for advancing Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030.

Can Saudi Arabia have its cake and it eat too by strengthening Riyadh’s ties with Beijing via their mutual interests in Myanmar, while having the luxury of maintaining the kingdom’s continued support for a repressed Muslim minority group?

The tangled web Saudi Arabia has weaved will in all likelihood become more complicated, yet the kingdom’s support for the Rohingya should be expected to continue for some time, given Saudi Arabia’s clearly demonstrated view that throwing its weight behind this Muslim minority group in Myanmar yields more net benefits than disadvantages in the forum of global public opinion.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jcarillet