On the evening of March 21, Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim began his publicly unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia. Early on, people in the know around Putra Jaya weren’t too sure whether it was a private or official visit. The timing wasn’t right as it was the beginning of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. It was mooted, Anwar and his wife were travelling to perform the Umrah. It was also thought their daughter Nurul Izzah, travelled by a commercial flight to joint her parents to perform the Umrah.
Upon arriving in Jeddah in the morning of March 22, Anwar was greeted at the Jeddah International Airport by Jeddah’s governor, Prince Saud bin Abdullah. This was the first sign that Anwar’s visit to Saudi Arabia was a working visit, rather than a private visit.
On March 22, the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release stating that Anwar’s visit was the result of an invitation of His Royal Highness Mohammed Salman bin Salman Al Saud, and Crown Prince and prime minister, Mohammed Salman bin Abdullah. The press statement went further stating Anwar would have audiences with his Majesty the King and Crown Prince and prime minister.
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 that might be made during Anwar’s visit.
It appeared, Zamby had set things up for his boss to have a major media ‘coup’ during his visit. The Malaysian media seemed to pick up interest, where all Anwar’s meetings were reported on an hourly basis. However, as the duration of the visit was coming to an end, there was still no meeting, or even dinner (breaking of fast), with His Majesty King Salman and the Crown Prince/prime minister.
On Saturday afternoon March 25, it became clear there would be no meeting. A report from Bernama said the scheduled meeting with His Majesty the King and Crown Prince/prime minister could not take place because of a change in their scheduling during the beginning of Ramadan.
Anwar told the media he was disappointed not to meet the Saudi leaders, but had been requested to extend his stay two days for a rescheduled meeting. However, Anwar stated he must return to Malaysia for a buka puasa or breaking of fast with the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, and has a scheduled one-day visit to Cambodia to undertake, so, extension of stay is 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.
What went wrong
At this stage there is no definitive explanation as to why Anwar didn’t meet with the Saudi leadership. We can only surmise the possibilities.
Some speculate that the scrapping of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) by the previous Pakatan Harapan Government under Mahathir Mohamed was the reason. Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, accompanying him was then deputy prime minister. Another issue was the strain over 1MDB. However, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin received a very different treatment, and his was home minister under Mahathir.
However, 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’.
Incompetence and disorganization
Malaysian diplomats last year bungled former prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s visit to the United Arab Emirates to attend a trade expo, where there were no UAE officials to meet with him upon his arrival at the airport.
It’s very likely similar blunders occurred before Anwar’s visit to Saudi Arabia. There is word that the arrangements were rushed as the trip was planned at relatively short notice. The late release of the press statement seems to indicate poor coordination.
The most sinister explanation was that this was sabotaged on purpose by some diplomats and/or civil servants who have loyalties towards Muhyiddin and the PN. This is a common modus operandi within the civil service, a Machiavellian action to discredit someone not liked.
It doesn’t matter whether Anwar’s failure to meet with the Saudi leadership was because of a diplomatic issue, incompetence and disorganization, or sabotage. There must be an investigation into Wisma Putra, to how such decisions were made where both Malaysia’s prime minister and nation lost face in Saudi Arabia.
Anwar’s disaster in Saudi is already generating political flank from the PN opposition. Mahathir Mohd Rais, PN’s Federal Territories Information Chief said that on Muhyiddin’s visit to Saudi Arabia, back in 2021 that ‘Muhyiddin was greeted at the airport by Crown Prince Mohammed Salman and granted access to the Kaaba, a rare honour 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’.
Foreign minister Zamby Abdul Kadir must come up with the answers, or resign. If this is the standard of care Malaysia’s diplomats and bureaucrats display, then there must be an immediate purge of these people who have discredited Malaysia.
Malaysia’s prime minister cannot be humiliated like this.
Murray Hunter’s blog can be accessed here