To go or not to go, the Saudi prince’s Malaysian dilemma

Mohammed bin Salman. (Reuters pic)

Now that Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has postponed his visit to Malaysia and Indonesia during his Asian tour, Malaysia has more time to think about how it should welcome the Saudi prince, and indeed, if it should at all.

On the eve of his visit, Malaysian state news agency Bernama published an article about “giga-projects” undertaken by the crown prince, including a massive anti-corruption campaign that reportedly concluded last month.

But it did not mention why MBS is going on an eastern tour right now.

Condemned in the West for the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, as well as for leading the dreadful military campaign in Yemen along with other members of the coalition, MBS apparently embarked on a “Look East” policy when relations with the West got a little cold.

On Feb 14, the US Congress voted 248 against 177 to end Washington’s involvement with the Saudis in the Yemen war, compelling American forces to withdraw within 30 days.

The US Senate is likely to give its “aye” before the bill faces President Donald Trump’s opposition, as Trump has already assured Congress that he will not sign it into law. Yet, the Congress seems determined.

Another bill, No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (Nopec), targeting Opec’s prerogative to coordinate oil production and influence prices, is prowling about in Congress. If it is passed, it will strip Saudi Arabia of its significant leverage over the US in regulating oil prices.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Saudi Arabia has found itself on the European Union’s list of “high-risk” countries in terms of terrorism financing and money laundering.

With such pressure from the West, MBS seems to be looking to prove that he can rapidly turn to the East instead.

Promises to invest US$20 billion in Pakistan, his first stop in his tour, do not look like a grand investment plan but an attempt to get Islamabad’s support.

Will it be so easy for Pakistan to say “no” to involvement in campaigns like the one in Yemen next time, as it did with its parliamentary vote before?

China, with its economic might, is now seen as the new colonial power. Saudi Arabia’s prospective investment, on the other hand, might be viewed more leniently by Muslim-majority countries, especially after the young prince earned some political capital on the wave of his progressive outlook.

The Saudi royal family used to be welcome in Malaysia during former leader Najib Razak’s administration.

So has there been enough thought given to what Saudi Arabia’s investment promises entail?

After the change of government on May 9 last year, Malaysia hoped to renegotiate several projects with China, including the US$20 billion East Coast Rail Link and the US$2.5 billion Trans-Sabah Gas Pipeline. Putrajaya said the projects were putting undue pressure on its finances, already troubled by the 1MDB embezzlement and past government mismanagement.

During his visit to China in August 2018, Dr Mahathir Mohamad warned of a “new version of colonialism” with regards to China’s increasing influence in the region. If that was the way Malaysia spoke to China, it will not hesitate to pursue its interests when it comes to relations with Saudi Arabia, and decide prudently about the offerings MBS would carry should he come.

When asked if he would condemn MBS on the murder of Khashoggi, Mahathir said he would first see what China and Japan – MBS’ other destinations – have to say.

Such a runaround is not surprising as the New Malaysia walks a tightrope between taking a strong ideological stance on issues where justice is concerned and prioritising the resources Malaysia needs.

Malaysia was not at all equivocal in its recent strong move to deny entry to Israeli para-athletes for the Para-Swimming Championship in Sarawak this year.

Malaysia’s economy and reputation took a hit as a result of this decision, as the International Paralympic Committee decided to withdraw the competition from Malaysia.

One wonders if such an adamant position towards Israel is important even to some Arab nations, which gladly participated in the recent US-led Middle East Conference in Warsaw (dubbed as the Anti-Iran Summit), and sat next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Malaysia also spoke out on the sore subject of the Uighur situation in China. It did so before even Turkey dared to post a statement condemning China’s policy towards Uighurs on the website of its foreign ministry, but it was done nice and slow.

Prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim raised the issue during his visit to China, but only alongside other matters.

Post-Najib, Malaysia started altering the course with regards to the Saudis by first pulling out Malaysian troops from the Saudi-led operation in Yemen after reportedly spending about US$3.5 million since its involvement in 2015.

Second, it shut down the King Salman Center for International Peace, a Saudi-sponsored anti-terrorism entity launched by King Salman himself in 2017.

The demand to speak out against the continuation of the war in Yemen has been on the rise, especially given the fact that Malaysia’s involvement in the war was without approval from the Cabinet or the National Security Council.

The new defence minister faced internal pressure from his own political party not to appear anti-Saudi or pro-Shia (referring to Iran’s alleged role in supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen) and to take action to end the humanitarian crisis.

The government is, indeed, cautious not to align itself with anyone unequivocally, giving itself sufficient space to manoeuvre.

However, public sentiment and Putrajaya’s sleek move to distance itself from Riyadh perhaps showed MBS that Malaysia is not the right place to come to at the moment, even if he wishes to get Washington’s attention by a series of smooth visits to key Asian players.

It might drag him into the unpleasant discussions that he is trying very hard to evade.

Julia Roknifard is a director of foreign policy at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.