When Brotherhood Matters: Jokowi and MBZ

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo during one of his frequent visits to the UAE to meet Prince Mohamed bin Zayed. Credit: BPMI of Presidential Secretariat/Laily Rachev.

Indonesia-United Arab Emirates (UAE) Relations

During President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s tenure, bilateral relations between Indonesia and the UAE have not only been bound by diplomatic formalities, but also personal relationship that extends beyond state visits.

The UAE has become the country in the Arabian Peninsula that Jokowi has visited the most as president, especially in his second term. Initially, Jokowi’s friendship with Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) began when the latter undertook his maiden visit to Indonesia in 2019. This was the first visit by a UAE leader since 1990. The friendship developed steadily over the years that Jokowi even invited MBZ to attend the G20 Summit in Bali, the meeting of the largest economies in the world held last year.

The personal connection, obviously, coincides with the economic interest of both nations, especially in the post-pandemic dimension. The two countries witnessed an improvement in economic cooperation in 2021 after a slump in the previous year. The economic ties have further evolved into the Indonesia-United Arab Emirates Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IUAE-CEPA), signed in mid-2022, which is expected to triple today’s bilateral trade figures. It is also hoped that IUAE-CEPA could stimulate further business-to-business collaboration, such as Etihad Airways’ plan to invest in Garuda Indonesia.

The close bilateral relations also translate into the defense sector. Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto has represented Indonesia in a myriad of engagements with the UAE government over the last few years, such as the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in defense cooperation and a defense industry development cooperation protocol. This year alone, Prabowo led the Indonesian delegation to attend the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) 2023, consisting of officials from the Ministry of Defense and eight defense companies such as PT. Dirgantara Indonesia, PT. Pindad, PT. PAL Indonesia and others.

Other collaborations include the health sector, whereby Indonesia received a lot of health assistance from various countries including the UAE as a form of solidarity in fighting the spread of Covid-19. The UAE has provided the Sinopharm vaccine, oxygen cylinders, oxygen concentrators and other medical equipment.

This has likely led to the interest of both countries to formalize cooperation in the health sector. For example, last year the Indonesian Minister of Health Budi Gunadi Sadikin held a meeting with UAE’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Health Policy and Licensing Amin Al Ameeri to explore cooperation in the pharmaceutical industry, vaccines, therapy and diagnostic.

Evidence of the Jokowi-MBZ Brotherhood

Interestingly, the link between Jokowi and MBZ materialized in symbolic infrastructure.

For example, in 2020, a main road that was formerly known as Al Ma’arid Street, which separates the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Center (ADNEC) and the Embassy Area, has been renamed to President Joko Widodo Street by MBZ. Jokowi reciprocated by renaming a 37-kilometre toll road – which connects Jakarta and Cikampek – to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Elevated Toll Road in 2021.

This is not the first time an Indonesian figure has been named after a road outside in Indonesia, as we can also find the names of Soekarno, Muhammad Hatta, Raden Adjeng Kartini and Munir in places like Morocco and Netherlands. Jokowi’s enshrined name in a UAE street testifies to the lasting impression he has left on the Gulf state, especially compared to his relationship with other Arab leaders.

MBZ also awarded a mosque for Jokowi which was built in the latter’s birthplace, Solo, Central Java, where he began his political career. The mosque was designed directly as a replica of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, costing around Rp300 billion to build on a three-hectares area. Funded entirely by the UAE government, the Sheikh Zahed Al-Nahayan Mosque could accommodate 12,000 worshippers and symbolizes moderation and religious tolerance.

Important events count as well. Jokowi visited the UAE in mid-2022 to offer his condolences on the death of the emir of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, MBZ’s predecessor. This visit also included a meeting with MBZ who had been appointed as the third president of the UAE and the new ruler of Abu Dhabi. 

In the same year, MBZ sent his youngest son Khalid bin Mohamed bin Zayed to attend the wedding reception of Kaesang Pangarep, Jokowi’s youngest child. Prince Khalid and his entourage were the only state guests present at the wedding.

The Significance of the Brotherhood

It cannot be denied that the UAE has become one of Indonesia’s closest relations since Jokowi took office. Arguably, this is due to (partial, if not whole) alignments in the Muslim worldview, developmental trajectories and geopolitical concerns. The UAE notably plays a role in the spread of Wasatiyyah Islam, or moderate Islam, which is critical for Indonesia’s multicultural setting.

The personal relationship between Jokowi and MBZ also has a significant, positive impact on the Indonesian public. As a foreign leader, MBZ is a trusted figure by the Indonesian public, besides Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Therefore, the image of the UAE, and MBZ in particular, is perceived well in Indonesia, which may have facilitated the building of cooperation between the two countries. In contrast, the close relationship that Indonesia and China has enjoyed in recent times does not align with the China’s declining approval rate in the eyes of the Indonesian public.

It is hoped that the “brotherhood” between Jokowi and MBZ will have a wider and more sustainable impact on both countries in the investment, economic, socio-cultural fields, especially beyond Jokowi’s term as Indonesia’s president, which terminates in 2024.

In the remaining time of Jokowi’s leadership, the new face of Indonesian presidential candidate Anies Baswedan, the former Governor of Jakarta, has invited investors from the UAE to invest in the the Urban Redevelopment Project, which includes Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), Light Rapid Transit (LRT) Jakarta, Transit-Oriented-Development (TOD) and electric buses. This offer was made by Anies during the Dubai Expo performance in March 2022, when he was still in office. This can be seen as Anies’ strategy to capitalize on Jokowi-MBZ brotherhood to ensure that cooperative relations with the UAE after the end of Jokowi’s leadership, should Anies be elected into office next year. In other words, this effort can also be considered to continue Jokowi’s legacy to the UAE in the future.

Other presidential hopefuls such as the aforementioned Prabowo Subianto and Ganjar Pranowo has also had engagements with the UAE and MBZ himself as part of the coattail effect of the Jokowi-MBZ brotherhood. Despite this, it is too early to predict that they can foster as good a friendship as Jokowi did with MBZ this early in the period, especially as their chance at assuming the president’s seat is less than certain. Regardless, it would be logical for the UAE and MBZ to ensure that their influence, built from long years of cultivated interaction with Jokowi and his administration, would remain even after Jokowi leaves office. It is also too soon to say that Jokowi’s influence in the future would vanish completely – signs of Jokowi building his political dynasty have emerged over the years. The UAE and MBZ might also want to capitalize this as well.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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