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In risky gambit, Najib scores points with Saudi King’s visit

King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia made a recent state visit to Malaysia, where he was welcomed by the Malaysian King Muhammad V and Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Saudi King Salman (left) next to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 26. Photo: AP

Saudi King Salman (left) next to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak during a welcoming ceremony at Parliament house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Feb 26. Photo: AP

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King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia made a recent state visit to Malaysia, where he was welcomed by the Malaysian King Muhammad V and Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Malaysia was King Salman’s first stop during his month-long Asian tour, which covers Indonesia, Brunei, China and Japan. The last Saudi monarch to visit Malaysia was King Salman’s half-brother and predecessor, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in 2006.

The purpose of the visit was to deepen economic and diplomatic ties between the two Muslim-majority countries, with an aim to promote a “moderate” Islam. The Saudis are also seeking to strengthen ties with countries that import its oil and to promote investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia.

The Malaysian government sought to capitalise on King Salman’s visit to score political points on the domestic front. It wanted to boost its image as “protector of Islam” in front of an increasingly conservative electorate. However, the move to use the Saudi monarch’s visit for political gains has several pitfalls.

First, some quarters in Malaysia disagree with Wahhabi-Salafism, a puritan school of thought that the Saudis are promoting. The ideology is not in line with the Sunni and Shafi school of thought upheld by Malaysian muftis.

Second, the show of cordial bilateral relations and the treatment given to the Saudi King only revives the saga surrounding the RM2.6 billion (S$827 million) in Mr Najib’s bank account allegedly donated by a Saudi. Mr Mukhriz Mahathir, deputy president of the opposition Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia party, pointedly asked that the Saudi King clarify the issue during his visit.


Malaysia established diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in 1961, and the two countries’ relations are generally strong.

One indicator of the strength of bilateral relations is the Haj quota allocated for Malaysian pilgrims. For Muslim-majority countries such as Malaysia, the quota allocated is 0.1 per cent of the total population of the country, or 27,800 Malaysian pilgrims a year. In 2013, this was cut by 20 per cent because of a major reconstruction of the holy mosque. This year, Malaysia had its original quota restored, and King Salman gave a positive response to Malaysia’s request to increase its quota to 30,000 pilgrims.

However, the two countries follow different Islamic schools of thought. Saudi Arabia upholds the strict and puritan Wahhabi-Salafi brand of Islam, and its religious elites would frown upon some of the religious rituals practised by Malaysian Muslims, such as the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, visitations to graves of pious Muslims and the recitation of special prayers accompanying the death of fellow Muslims.

Malaysia, on the other hand, practises Sunni Islam and the Shafi School of jurisprudence. By orientation, the majority of Malaysian Muslims are traditionalist Sufis, coloured with a mix of ritualism and mysticism. So far, there have not been any major tensions between the two countries, except for the recent case regarding massive private donations to Mr Najib, allegedly from the Saudi royal family. Mr Najib admitted that he received RM2.6 billion — deposited into his bank account before the 2013 elections — from the Saudi royal family.

The reason for the “donation” remains unclear, but the Malaysian Attorney General declared that Mr Najib had returned US$620 million (S$880 million) in August that year.

The AG’s account conflicted with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir’s earlier claim that the money was part of a business deal and not a political donation. The minister then clarified that it was a genuine donation and nothing was expected in return. The identity of the Saudi donor remains a mystery to this day.


Since 2014, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, has been struggling to revive its economy, which has been hit by falling oil prices. In June 2014, oil prices were at US$115 a barrel, but by December that year they had dropped to US$70 a barrel.

Concerned about the state’s overreliance on oil, King Salman undertook several measures to diversify the kingdom’s economy. As part of the country’s economic transformation plan, the government decided to sell off 5 per cent of Aramco, a state–owned oil company. Part of King Salman’s visit to Asia is to consolidate economic ties with the region through investments and business partnerships.

Unsurprisingly, the Malaysian government welcomed Saudi Arabia’s interest to invest in Malaysia with open arms. The Saudi offer was too good to resist. One of the major hallmarks of King Salman’s visit was the signing of the Share Purchase Agreement between Saudi Arabia’s Aramco and Malaysia’s Petronas, a state-owned petroleum company.

The agreement states that Aramco will own 50 per cent of Petronas’ Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development (Rapid) project in Pengerang, Johor.

The RM 31 billion deal will convert the Johor town into a regional hub for oil and gas refinery, while Saudi Arabia will be the leading supplier of crude feedstock. Aramco will supply 70 per cent of crude oil for Rapid, while Petronas will provide the natural gas, energy and other facilities.

Besides the Rapid deal, both countries signed seven memorandums of understanding worth RM9.74 billion to boost trade and investment ties. These will cover areas such as health care, construction, education and the halal industry. Several agreements related to security and defence were also discussed, which include the building of the King Salman Centre for International Peace in Malaysia, to help combat terrorism.

The visit also helps to deflect criticism from the opposition that Malaysia is selling off its sovereignty to China. Recently, the opposition criticised the Forest City residential project in Johor, which has drawn massive amounts of Chinese investments.

The Aramco-Petronas deal strengthens Mr Najib’s argument that the government is willing to do business with any country, not only with China.

More importantly, the Malaysian government is using the Saudi King’s visit as a form of show-and-tell aimed at the Malay-Muslim community. The visit coincided with the ruling party United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) increasing assertiveness towards Muslim plights domestically and internationally.

Since 2014, Umno has been playing the Islamic card and courting Islamic opposition party PAS into its fold. Recently, the government pledged to support amendments to Act 355, proposed by PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang, intended to increase maximum punishments enforced by the Syariah courts. The message behind the government’s move to support the controversial Bill was its commitment towards empowering Islam and Malay-Muslim unity in the country.

King Salman’s visit could not have come at a better time for the Malaysian government. It can now boast to its domestic audience that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (the Saudi Arabian King’s title) chose Malaysia as its first stop in Asia.

Glorifying Malaysia’s ties with the Saudis is not unprecedented for the Najib administration. Mr Najib had previously invited the charismatic Imam from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, to meet him at his office. The Grand Imam also led the Friday prayers at the Federal Territory Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.

Mr Najib has also visited Saudi Arabia several times, making official visits to Riyadh and performing the umrah (minor pilgrimage) to Mecca. He has cleverly used these visits for photo opportunities portraying his piety. Pictures of him performing the Haj in 2011 and praying with his wife Rosmah Mansor in the Grand Mosque were widely circulated in the media and in his books.

Cementing the strength of bilateral relations between the two countries through soft power, two Malaysian universities conferred awards to the Saudi King. The Malaysian King also awarded King Salman Malaysia’s highest award, the Darjah Utama Seri Mahkota Negara. The awards accorded to King Salman in a way reciprocates the 2010 King Abdulaziz Order of Merit (First Class) awarded to Mr Najib by the then Saudi King.

King Salman’s visit to Malaysia appears to have achieved the objectives of both the Malaysian and Saudi Arabian governments.

However, the Prime Minister should not overly play the Saudi card on the domestic front. Some Malaysian Muslims are uncomfortable with what they see as an excessive Saudi presence in the state. For instance, they are concerned with the importation of the Saudi brand of Wahhabi-Salafism into Malaysia, which is largely Sufist and traditionalist.

Saudi oil money has been changing the religious make-up of Malaysians since the 1970s, but more direct penetration of Saudis in the religious sphere may change the outlook of ordinary Malaysians further. Already, there have been complaints about the Saudi private university, Al-Madinah International University in Selangor, for promoting exclusivist and intolerant views.

Finally, the visit failed to address rumours about the Saudi donation to Mr Najib. The reason given, that the donation was to reward Mr Najib for his efforts in combating terrorism, does not convince many Malaysians.

Some Umno bloggers argue that the fact the King came to Malaysia shows that the RM2.6 billion issue was settled.

However, the fact that the issue was not even mentioned during this visit is a missed opportunity on the part of both governments to bury the issue once and for all.


Dr Norshahril Saat is fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. This is adapted from a longer piece in Iseas Perspective.

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