An historic agenda requires a grand gesture. A Saudi monarch had not visited Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, in 47 years, which means the last was King Faisal, who was assassinated in 1975.
King Salman is on a month-long tour of Asia, with stops still to be made in China, Japan and the Maldives. He has already signed business deals (state oil company Saudi Aramco will invest $7bn into an oil refinery and petrochemical project in Malaysia’s southern state of Johor), accepted honourary degrees (University of Malaya presented him with a Doctor of Letters) and – most importantly for his target audience – posed for a selfie (with an Indonesian government official).
Between Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, there are a quarter of a billion Muslims, and the majority of them are younger than 30. The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is trying to reach the youth both within the kingdom and around the world, and one incredibly effective way to do that is from the palm of a hand.
Social media in Indonesia and Saudi Arabia is an essential part of daily life. According to wearesocial.com, which looks at all things digital, both Saudi Arabia and Indonesia ranked in the top 10 (seven and nine, respectively) in a 2016 report that tries to determine in which countries people spend the most time on social media.
Social media was invented by the youth and anyone older than 30 is trying to play catch up. When Facebook launched, Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder, was 19; Instagram’s creators were 27 and 23 when they introduced their platform to the world; Evan Spiegel, of Snapchat, which recently went public, was 22.
So when the 81-year-old King Salman poses for a selfie as he did on March 2 with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri and her 43-year-old daughter, Puan Maharani (who is a member of the current president’s cabinet), he is speaking the language of the Muslim youth.
I asked (over WhatsApp, naturally) a Saudi friend, who lives in Jeddah and is a former colleague who previously worked in Dubai, what he thinks of his ruler posing for a selfie and he said: “It shows that our king is approachable and modern”.
A 29-year-old Kuwaiti friend said “it takes the mystique out of it”. There’s a disconnect, he said, between part of the population in the GCC, and the leaders. Not because there isn’t loyalty towards them, “but we don’t know who they are as people”.
“They fashion themselves as father’s … so I think the king doing the selfie makes you think it’s the same as when my dad learnt how to take a selfie. It gives me some insight into his life, and I like that.”
King Salman, of course, has also recently set forth a new agenda, titled Vision 2030. This is how Saudi Arabia plans to move away from an oil-dependent economy. The plan looks at everything from the sovereign wealth funds and Haj pilgrims to culture and anti-corruption measures. Religion, however, is the foundation of the plan.
In a two-minute speech that was delivered on March 2 to the Indonesian House of Representatives, King Salman spoke about “the challenges the Muslim community and the world in general face, like terrorism and the clash of civilisations”. His language was assertive.
The king also held meetings with Indonesia’s religious leaders. Afterwards, the country’s religious affairs minister said “what is needed to maintain stability … is the moderation of Islam”.
The task for King Salman is to bridge the age gap, to grab the attention of the Muslim men and women who are the same ages as those who created the social media platforms that the Saudis and the Indonesians use throughout their day.
One easy way to cut into this generational divide is to embrace social media and see the world through an iPhone camera.