Malaysia must not be a pawn in Saudi’s grandstanding

MARCH 13 — When announcing a 34-nation Islamic Military Alliance against terrorism in December, Saudi Arabia’s defence minister — and deputy crown prince — Mohammad Salman might have expected much applause, but instead it was met with doubts and scepticism due to its vagueness and haste.

Soon after the announcement, Pakistan, which was named as among the 34, was clueless about the list. Together with Malaysia, the two countries would not even play any military role in the alliance.

Indonesia and Algeria, with the biggest Muslim populations in Asia and Africa, were noticeably absent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iran and Iraq were excluded. So were Oman and Qatar, whose relationships with Saudi remain shaky.

Anonymous Saudi affair blogger Mujtahidd has since suggested that the empty gesture was just Mohammad’s way of deflecting claims that Saudi is a major sponsor of terrorism. The New York Times penned an op-ed claiming that the move was merely responding to pressure from US president Barack Obama, who has accused Sunni states of doing little in the war on terrorism.

The criticisms might have weight. Saudi declared that the alliance’s target is not only the Islamic State (IS), but “all terrorist groups and organisations”, leading some to speculate that its immediate target might be the Houthis in Yemen, where Saudi’s intervention is fast turning into a colossal failure.

Fast forward to February, the Thunder of the North military drill in northeastern Saudi had raised eyebrows, especially with Malaysia’s involvement despite our previous insistence of zero military role in the alliance.

Soldiers take pictures as flame and smoke are seen following air bombardments during the Northern Thunder exercises, in Hafr Al-Batin, March 10, 2016. — Reuters pic
Soldiers take pictures as flame and smoke are seen following air bombardments during the Northern Thunder exercises, in Hafr Al-Batin, March 10, 2016. — Reuters pic

Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein has since clarified that the Armed Forces will stay away from any excursion into Yemen, and was only in the exercise to gain combat experience in “different environments”, such as desert warfare.

Despite that, an exclusive interview by Prime Minister Najib Razak with English-language site Arab News suggested a different take.

In the March 3 interview, the prime minister confirmed that Malaysia’s participation in the exercise was to ensure that it can not only operate as part of the alliance, but also to gauge whether the country will increase its level of participation.

Perhaps even more disturbing was the admission that Malaysia was there “to send a strong signal that the security of Saudi Arabia is very important” to it.

Such a stand by Putrajaya must be scrutinised with extreme vigilance. Especially when Malaysia has failed to differentiate between the holy land of Islamic theology, and the House of Saud that lays claim to it.

Malaysia’s participation in the alliance and military drill inevitably only contributes to Saudi’s portrayal that it is still a powerful political player in the region — even when it is increasingly crippled by foreign policy missteps and plummeting oil prices.

As the controller of hajj quota to nearly 1.7 billion Muslims worldwide, Saudi has fostered an Islamic reverence that leads many Muslim countries to close their eyes to the many human rights atrocities that the regime has committed.

For example, in the second cycle of the Universal Periodic Review in 2013, Malaysia had only recommended Saudi to “intensify efforts to promote the principle of transparency” against corruption, and to “continue its tremendous efforts to improve the level of protection and services provided for pilgrims” when it comes to freedom of religion and belief.

Similarly in the first cycle, Malaysia had meekly recommended Saudi to “intensify its efforts aimed at harmonising elements of the Shariah with existing laws” when it comes to women’s rights, and to “pursue its policies aiming at the promotion of dialogue among religions and civilisation” in freedom of religion.

It is not as if Saudi is unaware of attacks against its human rights record, which has led to a bizarre defence in a speech to the United Nations in Geneva last week.

“Saudi Arabia is one of the very first countries which promoted human rights. Such a support and a commitment to promote and protect human rights is but a duty imposed by the Islamic Shariah from which the statutes of my country is derived,” its culture and information minister Bandar al-Ali said.

The shameless claim came after Juan Mendez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, wrote in the annual report to the UN Human Rights Council that the rising number of executions in the Kingdom amounted to torture, and therefore breached international law.

But who is Saudi trying to fool?

The fact remains that last week, Saudi executed its 70th prisoner this year, and it is only March. In comparison, several advocacy groups claimed that there were 175 executions last year alone, most of them beheaded by sword.

And who can forget the 47 people executed all in one day earlier this year for “terrorism offences”, including prominent Shiah cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a move which has since sparked a renewed cold war with Iran?

Dissident and activist Raif Badawi is still in prison facing 1,000 floggings and 10 years’ jail for “insulting Islam.” Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh is facing eight years’ jail and 800 floggings for “apostasy.”

When more and more are distancing themselves from Saudi, even comparing the regime’s cruelty to the same IS it is trying to combat, Malaysia prides itself on a relationship that is “at the highest level, and are set to deepen further” with the Kingdom.

Even the Selangor state government has taken a leaf out of Putrajaya’s playbook, with Mentri Besar Azmin Ali welcoming an official visit by Prince Bandar Salman last week.

This stance we take on Saudi is enough to send a message to the world, of the kind of values Malaysia hold to.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.