Malaysia’s PM Anwar Caught in Saudi Gaffe
Long odds on hopes for China recovery
By: Murray Hunter
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim ended up being embarrassed last week on a publicly unannounced trip to Mecca, with senior Saudi officials seeming almost to have ignored him, igniting immediate gossip in Kuala Lumpur and sparking a demand by the opposition for a parliamentary explanation of what went wrong.
“The truth is – no one except those involved with the trip know what went wrong,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “But it’s a disaster. We will hear more in the next few days. Nothing is sacred or secret here.”
Anwar began his quietly planned trip to Saudi Arabia on March 21, with people in the know around the administrative capital Putra Jaya unsure whether the journey was private or official. Anwar and his wife were officially traveling to perform the Umrah, sometimes considered the "lesser pilgrimage” Muslims may make to the holy ground. It was also thought their daughter Nurul Izzah had traveled by a commercial flight to join her parents to perform the rite.
Arriving in Jeddah in the morning of March 22, Anwar was greeted at the International Airport only by Jeddah’s governor, Prince Saud bin Abdullah, the first sign that the visit was intended as a working trip, rather than a private one. On the same day, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release stating that Anwar’s visit was the result of an invitation by the prime minister, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known universally by his initials MBS. The press statement went further, stating Anwar would have audiences with his Majesty the King as well.
The visit came on top of Anwar’s announcement in February, after Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir met with his counterpart Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh, that Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have agreed to finalize talks on establishing a Saudi Arabian-Malaysian Coordination Council to take the bilateral relationship to the next level.
Consequently, there were some expectations of an historic announcement during Anwar’s visit. Indeed, it appeared that Zambry had set things up for his boss to have a major media coup during his visit. The Malaysian media seemed to pick up interest, with all of Anwar’s meetings reported hourly. However, as the hours wore on, it became clear that there was still no meeting, or even a dinner, the evening breaking of the Ramadan fast, with either MBS or other top officials.
On the afternoon of March 25, it became clear there would be no meeting. The Malaysian government news agency Bernama said the scheduled meeting with the king and crown prince/prime minister could not take place because of a change in their scheduling during the beginning of Ramadan.
“Zambry is quite out of his depth in foreign affairs (or any other ministry for that matter),” said a longtime former top Malaysian diplomat. “On the Saudi visit, however, my sources in diplomatic circles say that Wisma Putra had informed the prime minister’s office that the timing was not convenient and that there was a good chance a meeting with MBS could not be scheduled. But Anwar’s people insisted on going ahead, convinced that the Saudis would somehow find some time. It was for political purposes; simply to burnish his Islamic credentials for a domestic audience in view of all the past allegations against him. His program was not worth talking about and certainly not worth the trip although his office is trying to spin it. But he’ll survive this diplomatic blunder.”
Anwar told the media he was disappointed not to meet the Saudi leaders, but had been requested to extend his stay by two days for a rescheduled meeting. However, the Malaysian leader told reporters he was forced to return to Malaysia for a buka puasa. or breaking of fast with Malaysia’s king, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, and had a scheduled one-day visit to Cambodia. So an extension of stay was impossible.
Consequently, Anwar and his group performed prayers at the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and were seen off at Abdulaziz International Airport by Prince Saud bin Khalid Al-Faisal, the deputy governor of Madinah, hardly the sendoff that de rigueur would indicate for a departing head of state.
Some posit that Saudi irritation over the scrapping of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in KL by the previous Pakatan Harapan government under Mahathir Mohamed was the reason. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was then deputy prime minister. Another issue was the strain over 1Malaysia Development Bhd, the government-backed investment fund which collapsed massively, taking Saudi funds down with it. But by contrast, saddled with the same issues, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin received very different treatment, and he was home minister under Mahathir.
Middle East expert and Saudi watcher, James M. Dorsey discounts this. From Dorsey’s point of view what happened, or didn’t happen is a ‘mystery.’
However, what must be noted is that on March 25, Anwar had a press conference saying he would review the KSCIP decision, which he claims he didn’t agree with at the time.
This isn’t the first time controversy has accompanied a state visit by a Malaysian leader. Diplomats last year bungled former Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s visit to the United Arab Emirates to attend a trade expo, embarrassingly with no UAE officials to meet with him on his arrival at the airport. It’s very likely similar blunders occurred before Anwar’s visit. There is word that the arrangements were rushed, with even the trip planned at relatively short notice.
The late release of the press statement seems to indicate poor coordination although the most sinister explanation involves sabotage – some diplomats and/or civil servants who have loyalties towards Muhyiddin and the Perikatan Nasional government ousted by Anwar’s forces in November 2022 elections. If indeed that is the case, it was a sabotage common to a civil service that spent decades being cosseted by political forces hostile to reformists and particularly Anwar.
It doesn’t matter whether Anwar’s failure to meet with the Saudi leadership was because of diplomatic pique, incompetence and disorganization, or sabotage. He would wisely have elected not to make the visit if diplomatic risks were involved. The gaffe in Saudi Arabia is already generating political flak from the PN opposition. Mahathir Mohd Rais, PN’s Federal Territories Information Chief, was quoted as saying that in 2021 that Muhyiddin was greeted at the airport by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and granted access to the Kaaba, a rare honor reserved for heads of state and eminent Muslim figures’. Rais went on to say that ‘Anwar’s visit raises legitimate concerns about the Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional (PH-BN) administration diplomatic capabilities and impact on the Malaysia-Saudi relationship’.
Pakatan Harapan’s foreign minister Zambry, an UMNO stalwart whose diplomatic credentials don’t seem to extend past his service as Perak chief minister and as Secretary-General of the now-collapsed Barisan Nasional, seems hardly the man for such a sensitive post presenting Malaysia’s face to the world. A growing chorus of critics is questioning what he’s doing there. Zambry is currently with Anwar in Cambodia, hoping to pull off a success that will help cover up the fiasco in Saudi last week. On March 29, Zambry will also accompany Anwar on the state visit to China, where it is hoped that Chinese hospitality will help people forget last week. However, insiders in Kuala Lumpur say the trip is equally underprepared. Anwar asked his staff to come up with investment packages to be announced, possibly the export of the pungent durian fruit and some as-yet arrangement over electric cars. But, the sources said, as before, deals are likely to be announced but never delivered. One source said he is likely to have to settle for a photo op. Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong is due in Beijing at almost the same time and is certain to far better prepared.
One blogger, Syed Akbar Ali, who is usually in the ‘know’ described the visit to Saudi Arabia as a poorly thought-out junket, with the meetings with Saudi Arabia’s leaders never going to happen. Bersatu MP Wan Ahmad Fayhsal Wan Hamid Kamal has sought notice for a public debate in parliament on the matter. The speaker has accepted the motion.