Yemen pull-out shows Malaysia’s increasing independence over foreign policy, says academic

Najib Razak (far right) with Arab leaders who joined a summit attended by President Donald Trump in Riyadh in May 2017. The previous government was seen as an ally of Saudi Arabia and its Western backers. (Bernama pic)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s decision to exit a Saudi-led military alliance that has been backing government forces in Yemen is a sign of Putrajaya’s increasing independence in matters of foreign policy after nearly a decade of adopting a docile approach to big powers, says an academic who specialises in the Middle East.

James M Dorsey, who is currently attached to Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said this was also true of several decisions by Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s government, including the closure of the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace last August, and the prime minister’s open criticism of US policies under President Donald Trump.

“The symbolism of that is not only that it was made for King Salman (Abdul Aziz) but that it was inaugurated by him,” he told FMT in a recent interview.

“If one believes that the Saudis were very protective and helpful to Najib, leaving aside the involvement of PetroSaudi, then obviously this government has more independence towards Saudi Arabia,” he said, referring to the oil giant’s involvement in the 1MDB scandal.

He said the recent decision by Saudi crown price Mohammed bin Salman to skip Malaysia in his Asian trip could be seen in the same light, although it was still premature to make any assumptions.

“If anything, he may have wanted to come to Malaysia to improve relations,” he added.

James M Dorsey speaks at the Stand With Yemen symposium in Kuala Lumpur.

But Dorsey believes the decision not to support the Saudi-led forces in Yemen as well as to close the King Salman centre have affected Saudi-Malaysia relations.

He said Malaysia’s approach to China also offered an interesting case study on its new foreign policy.

He said Putrajaya was now “charting a more independent force” following the cancellation of several China-backed projects.

“I would argue that Chinese terms often are not favourable to the recipient country and he (Mahathir) has proven his willingness to take that on as if it’s something worth his while.

“This makes a huge difference,” he said.

Since coming to power last year, the Pakatan Harapan government has cancelled or put on hold several large infrastructure projects with Chinese state companies, including the East Coast Rail Link, Multi-Product Pipeline and Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline.

But the growing independence in charting its foreign relations does not mean Malaysia has more influence on the global stage, including in flashpoints such as Yemen.

Dorsey, who was in Kuala Lumpur to take part in the recent “Stand With Yemen” symposium, said Malaysia had no leverage to pressure the parties involved in the four-year conflict which has left thousands dead and sparked a humanitarian crisis.

Since 2015, surrounding Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia have launched bombing campaigns in Yemen in a bid to stop advancing Houthi rebels from toppling the government there. The conflict is seen as another flashpoint in the Middle East, with sectarianism coming into play as both Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran try to wield their influence.

Dorsey said even the United Nations was finding it hard to negotiate a ceasefire between the warring parties.

“The fact that they are sitting at the table may mean they feel it’s time to negotiate a deal or be seen as wanting to get a deal.

“I don’t know which it is, but frankly, Malaysia does not have the leverage to bring them together, which leaves us to the humanitarian aspect where Malaysia can, alongside others, make some difference,” he told FMT.

He said humanitarian involvement in the crisis had to be “impartial distribution of humanitarian aid” for both sides of the conflict.

A more immediate step for Malaysia could be on its own turf, where some 13,000 Yemenis have been seeking refuge, he added.

Mahathir, in a speech at the Kuala Lumpur symposium, had reaffirmed Putrajaya’s decision to break away from its past policy of backing the Saudis and their allies.

Malaysian troops were deployed in 2015 for a “non-military” role in Yemen, according to the previous government. Putrajaya recalled its officers following the change of government in May last year.

Karyn Denise Dula Magno contributed to this article.