Meet the invisible Saudi, he resides at the King Fahd Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud cultural centre in Sarajevo, adjacent to the largest mosque on the Balkans, a gift from Saudi Arabia to the people of Bosnia after that country’s devastating war in the 1990’s. A prop used by the cultural centre during a book fair to get Bosnians better acquainted with Saudi society, the invisible Saudi and his equally invisible wife (but that is not uncommon in Saudi Arabia) could be a symbol for that country’s role in Bosnia. During the war, rumours were rife of Saudi funded foreign Jihadis joining the ranks of Bosnia’s besieged Muslim community in their fight with mainly the Orthodox Christian Serbs. Concern over these supposed Jihadis using Bosnia as a jumping board into Europe and the US kept cropping up periodically for more than a decade after the war and received new impetus after 9/11. But the story has since died a silent death. One local journalist and analyst in Sarajevo who wrote about it repeatedly, recently told me that it has become a non-issue. Steps that were taken to deal with it have proved adequate and the threat never panned out. With global concern over Jihadis in Syria reaching fever pitch, it may be a very small example of how worst-case scenarios are not always realistic.
Much more revealing about the present moment in the Middle East than the whole Jihadi question was an unprompted remark by the Saudi cultural representative in Sarajevo concerning Iran. Asked about Turkey’s unquestionable cultural influence in Bosnia, he said, “Turkey and Saudi Arabia are the same in Bosnia. Only some other countries are against us. Yes, Iran”. European Bosnia may not seem an obvious place for the raging sectarian tensions that plague the Middle East to surface but maybe the official had in mind the expulsion of four Iranian diplomats accused of spying that was rumoured to be taking place as he was speaking.
Many Bosniaks, the name for Bosnian Muslims, are not that charmed by either Iran or Saudi Arabia, which a group of youngsters having coffee on a Friday morning in the shade of the looming Saudi mosque in the Alipasino Polje neighborhood of Sarajevo lumped together as “the East”. Ignoring the call to Friday prayer, the law and business students at the café expressed their disapproval of “all that Wahhabi stuff, veils, religion in the street, that we never had before the war.” Yet they did not see a major Jihadist problem in Bosnia either. “We are European, not like those Muslims of the East.”
The Bosnians have plenty of their own problems to worry about without importing new ones from Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran. The sectarian and political mess that persists almost two decade after the war is leaving them behind in the former Yugoslav republics’ drive to join the EU. The corruption, bloody mindedness and astonishing obtuseness of their political leaders has led to such high-farce crises as the babies born in bureaucratic limbo and a national museum closed for lack of a national narrative. Even though a virtual EU protectorate and boosted by Islamic and European goodwill and aid, Bosnia is an object lesson in how civil war and sectarian divisions can screw a place up for years to come.
Bosnia’s invisible Saudi by Ferry Biedermann is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.