Anwar Ibrahim’s opponents are trying to politicise his recent trip to Mecca but it is not a foregone conclusion that Anwar, and by extension Malaysia, was snubbed.
For many Malaysian Muslims, the image of their prime minister (PM) emerging from the Kaaba would convince them that he is a legitimate leader. The Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is one of the most sacred sites for Islam and Muslims. However, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s failure to enter the Kaaba — much less meet the Saudi king and crown prince — during his visit to Saudi Arabia from 22–24 March 2023 may prompt concerns about the politicisation of Islam’s most sacred sites, including how the Saudi ruling family as the self-appointed custodian of Mecca and Medina may contribute to it.
While Anwar was invited by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and was scheduled to have an audience with him and King Salman, this meeting did not happen. This led Perikatan Nasional’s (PN) Wan Ahmad Fayhsal to ask Anwar to explain his failure to meet MBS, who is also the Saudi finance minister. Fayhsal further alluded to the possibility that the “failure of (Anwar’s) visit” would give cause for concern about the state of ties between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
To counter this narrative, the Prime Minister’s Office explained that the Saudi leaders simply had a change of schedules due to Ramadan and had suggested that Anwar extend his visit so that they could eventually meet.
In contrast, when former PM Muhyiddin Yassin visited the Kingdom in March 2021, he not only met the crown prince but also signed several memoranda of understanding (MOUs). Muhyiddin was greeted by the crown prince upon his arrival in Riyadh and given the rare opportunity to enter the Kaaba when he performed the umrah (minor pilgrimage). He was the first Muslim leader to do so after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The minor brouhaha concerning Anwar’s visit is partly explained by understanding the Malay psyche regarding Islam. Given the Saudi ruling family’s status as custodian of the two sacred cities, they are often perceived as the defender of the Islamic faith. Any formal interaction with them and any image of a Malay leader in front of the Kaaba is therefore bound to evoke Malaysian Malays’ emotions and national pride. By extension, any official visit by a Malaysian Malay politician to the two sacred cities with an invitation to enter the Kaaba and to meet senior Saudi leaders would burnish the former’s credentials as a Muslim leader.
There is no clear evidence, however, that Malaysia-Saudi ties are on the rocks.
Previous Malaysian prime ministers who have enjoyed such recognition include Mahathir Mohamad and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi in 2002 and 2004 respectively and Najib Razak in 2018. For Najib in particular, media images of him entering the Kaaba were used to boost his standing at a time when the 14th General Election was imminent and when his credibility was at stake due to the 1MDB corruption investigations.
Visits to Saudi Arabia are also important for Malaysian leaders to score political points as they negotiate possible haj quota increases for their Muslim citizens. The Saudi Arabian government has approved a Haj quota for Malaysia of 31,600 for 2023, an increase from last year’s 14,306, when some pandemic restrictions were still in place. For 2024, Malaysia aims to raise the quota to 31,950 pilgrims.
However, opportunistic misuse of such visits can backfire. In 2021, PN leader and former trade and industry minister Azmin Ali, who posted a picture of himself mopping the floor of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, was heavily criticised by his political opponents. His act was deemed by some netizens as a political stunt and cheap publicity.
It is difficult to conclude whether Anwar’s first official visit to Saudi Arabia as PM “failed”. Despite not meeting the two top leaders, Anwar held important meetings with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the World Muslim League in Mecca. Additionally, he witnessed the signing of several MOUs involving industries and businesses, and met Malaysians residing there.
Anwar reiterated that Saudi Arabia is an important country and that he was open to starting talks on resuming operations of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Malaysia. The centre was set up during Najib Razak’s administration with the aim of combatting terrorism but was shut down during Pakatan Harapan’s (PH) administration in 2018. This was reportedly done without consulting the Saudis. In August 2018, UMNO had loudly criticised this decision, warning the PH administration that it could jeopardise Malaysia-Saudi ties. Mohammed Sabu, then defence minister, said that his ministry would eventually take control of the centre. Anwar’s suggestion to resume the KSCIP’s operations could be a bid to address PH’s past “mistake”.
Another possible blunder by the previous PH administration was their organisation of the Kuala Lumpur Summit in 2019 that was widely seen as undermining the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Saudi Arabia was apparently unhappy with the presence of leaders such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Hamad Al Thani, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, all of whom were fierce critics of the Kingdom.
The current opposition in Malaysia might be taking advantage of PM Anwar’s failure to meet the top Saudi leaders and enter the Kaaba by criticising him for the latest diplomatic blunder. There is no clear evidence, however, that Malaysia-Saudi ties are on the rocks.
Mohd Faizal Musa was a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, and is an Associate at Weatherhead Centre Harvard University working on Global Shia Diaspora.