Economics has long governed the relationship between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. The Southeast Asian island country supplies migrant workers to the Middle Eastern kingdom, which, like many of its neighbors, relies on foreign labor in industries from agriculture to healthcare. A Saudi research center appears determined to diversify the kingdom’s ties to the Philippines, however, and is deploying perhaps the most effective instrument in the Saudi toolkit of cultural diplomacy: religion—which gives Saudi Arabia preeminence in the Muslim world.

On June 28, the Saudi newspaper Arab News quoted the Office of the Philippine President saying that the ​​King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies—a think tank operating under the King Faisal Foundation—intended to initiate greater outreach to Filipino scholars and students. The Philippine News Agency, an outlet affiliated with the Office of the Philippine President, confirmed Arab News’ account in an article published three days later.

Reports of the King Faisal Center’s planned engagement with Filipino researchers left much unclear, namely the type of scholarship that the think tank will sponsor and the extent of the support that it will provide. The King Faisal Center may, in fact, still be determining these details since its website makes no mention of the proposed initiative. Still, the outside coverage of discussions between the research institute and its Philippine partners offers clues about this collaboration in the making.

The King Faisal Center “is encouraging Filipinos to join its network of academic researchers.”

The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh said in a statement to Arab News that the King Faisal Center “is encouraging Filipinos to join its network of academic researchers” and that “the Embassy is also working to establish linkages between the center and some universities in the Philippines.” Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto described the timeline for the project as “subject to further talks with the center” in his own comments to the Saudi newspaper.

The Philippine News Agency, for its part, reported that the King Faisal Center would “open its doors to Filipino scholars who want to pursue scholarly works in Islamic research and studies,” mentioning the research institute’s corresponding interest in partnering with Philippine academic institutions.

Saudi Arabia Philippines

In this photo released by the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi King Salman, second right, receives Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  April 11, 2017. The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies recently announced an initiative to expand cultural relations with the Philippines. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

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Both articles on the King Faisal Center’s prospective initiative featured an intriguing reference: they noted that the think tank’s collaboration with Philippine universities would likely include educational institutions in Bangsamoro, the Philippines’ only Muslim-majority autonomous region. Named after the island nation’s most prominent Muslim ethnic group—the “Moro” or “Bangsamoro” people—the territory sits on Mindanao, an island rich in cultural heritage. After Islam arrived in the Philippine archipelago in the 14th century, Mindanao hosted some of Southeast Asia’s best-known sultanates.

In light of the King Faisal Center’s focus on Islamic studies, its interest in Bangsamoro universities and Filipino scholars of Islam should come as little surprise. In fact, the research institute established an “Asian studies unit” to pursue just this kind of relationship in 2015. The King Faisal Center likely intends to leverage Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage in its future engagement with the Philippines.

As the home of Islam’s most significant historic sites and sacred spaces, Saudi Arabia presents an enticing environment for students of the religion. Control of Mecca and Medina in particular has cemented the kingdom’s status as one of the leaders of the Muslim world, giving the King Faisal Center the ability to forge partnerships that Islamic cultural institutions in other countries might struggle to. The think tank’s newsworthy ability to attract senior Philippine officials speaks to the success of its outreach.

Reports of the King Faisal Center’s plans to work with Philippine scholars and universities followed a visit to the research institute by Robert E. A. Borje, a top aide to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. During a trip to Saudi Arabia from June 19 to 24, Borje stopped by the research institute “to pay respect to the kingdom’s Islamic heritage, values and identity and honor the enduring ties between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia,” according to the Philippine News Agency. Arab News added that the envoy hoped for more “academic and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.”

Arab News described the King Faisal Center’s offer to welcome Filipino scholars “as part of efforts to strengthen bilateral ties between” the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, suggesting that the research institute wants to move beyond the economic calculus linking the two countries as well.

The Philippines’ export of migrant workers has long underpinned its relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Philippines’ export of migrant workers has long underpinned its relationship with Saudi Arabia. The Philippine Foreign Affairs Department reported that 938,490 Filipinos lived in the kingdom in late 2014, and 2019 data from the Philippine Statistics Agency indicated that 22.4 percent of an estimated 2.2 million “Overseas Filipino Workers” had found employment in Saudi Arabia.

This arrangement fulfills crucial needs for Saudi Arabia and the Philippines alike, supplementing the kingdom’s labor force in vital industries while providing the island country with much-needed remittances. However, the mistreatment of Filipinos working in the Middle East has fed anger in the Philippines. While many migrant workers in the region make good money and lead successful lives, others face physical abuse and sexual violence, including a number of Filipinos. Some have even died.

Accordingly, Philippine officials have demonstrated their commitment to the wellbeing of Filipinos abroad. The 2018 death of a Filipina domestic worker in Kuwait led the Philippines to suspend the travel of migrant workers to the country; a year later, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department decried “the continuing incidents of violence and abuse of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait” after the murder of another Filipina in the Middle Eastern country.

As recently as May 28, the Philippines blocked migrant workers from going to Saudi Arabia because of reports that Saudi employers were forcing Filipinos to cover the costs of their own insurance, quarantine, and COVID-19 tests. The Philippines reversed its suspension of migrant workers’ travel to Saudi Arabia a day later, after receiving assurances from the kingdom; Borje’s June visit suggests that the two countries have moved past the episode. Nonetheless, the brief diplomatic incident speaks to the precariousness of a relationship built on the mass provision of inexpensive labor.

The King Faisal Center’s reported proposal to invest in Filipinos’ academic pursuits and educational institutions, if it comes to fruition, could broaden and deepen the connection between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia. In particular, Bangsamoro’s sultanic legacy shows that the island nation has much to offer as a destination of and source for scholarship on Islam, a key aspect of the Saudi think tank’s mission. If the King Faisal Center’s initiative succeeds, cultural diplomacy may soon bind the Philippines and Saudi Arabia together as much as economics does today.