Hadi Awang, the Malaysian prime minister’s special envoy to the Middle East, has done little to advance Kuala Lumpur’s interests in that region. His role is more political than functional.
When the Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition came to power in March 2020, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin inherited a fragmented Middle East foreign policy from his predecessor Mahathir Mohamad. The implication of Saudi Arabia in the controversial 1MDB saga put Malaysia at cross-purposes with Riyadh. In December 2019, Malaysia also held the Kuala Lumpur Summit as an initial step to finding solutions to the Islamic world’s problems. Again, this did not put Malaysia in the kingdom’s good books. Under Dr Mahathir, Saudi Arabia — an economic, political and religious powerhouse in the Middle East — has put Malaysia on a similar plane to Turkey, which sought to alter the Islamic power balance across the Muslim world.
In his bid to repair Malaysia’s relations with the Saudis, Muhyiddin swiftly appointed Hishammuddin Hussein — who enjoys cordial relations with the Saudis through his previous ministerial portfolios — to salvage what was left of the longstanding partnership between the two countries. In previous years, Malaysia-Saudi relations had thrived, thanks to personal rapport established between leaders of both countries – as had happened during the premiership of Najib Razak.
Muhyiddin also made a rather unprecedented foreign policy move in April 2020, when he appointed Hadi Awang, the president of the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), as his special envoy to the Middle East. Hadi’s appointment came at a time when Muhyiddin needed to keep PAS within PN and guarantee a majority in parliament.
While Hishammuddin is a skilled diplomat who has represented Malaysia’s interests in official capacities on countless occasions, Hadi’s credentials do not exactly match up to the appointment. On paper at least, he will not win him any favours with the Saudis. The closest that he has to some foreign policy experience is his involvement in the autonomous International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) as its former vice president. The fact that the organisation is blacklisted by Saudi Arabia as a terror group means he will gain little traction with the Saudis. In addition, he has close associations with Islamic political movements in the Middle East, such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). These movements are not on the best terms by the kingdom.
Since the 1980s, Hadi has, like other PAS loyalists, been inspired by the successes of Islam-based politics abroad, such as in Pakistan and Iran. This faction, helmed by Nik Aziz and Hadi himself, had established the leadership of the ulama (kepimpinan ulama) as the party’s new ideology. This drew inspiration from the 1979 Iranian Revolution which saw the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini as the supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic. Many among the ulama faction were once also educated in the Middle East and had first-hand contact with the MB’s grassroots efforts, which in turn influenced the organisational structure of PAS over the decades. Under the kepimpinan ulamaslogan and the electoral successes it enjoyed in the 1990s, PAS established itself as a prime example for other Islamic parties across Asia and the Middle East.
Although Hadi had graduated from the Islamic University of Madinah (IUM) in early 1980s, his educational affiliation with the state-founded Saudi university did not accrue him any political capital with the Saudis. This could be attributed to his association with Islamic political movements then – when the MB-inspired Sahwa movement was popular throughout the kingdom before its purge – and now, with his lifelong attachment to PAS.
Hadi has played a largely ceremonial role in representing Malaysia’s interests in the Middle East.
Hadi’s case is quite different from that of Zulkifli Al-Bakri, who is the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office for Religious Affairs. The Saudis have extended to Zulkifli, another alumnus of IUM, a royal invitation to visit the city of Medina and his alma mater. As a minister who is not a member of any Islamic political party and an inductee of the Muslim Council of Elders – the autonomous body of senior Muslim scholars chaired by the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar – Zulkifli has a clear edge over Hadi in advancing the PM’s foreign policy agenda with the Saudis, including raising the haj quota for Malaysians.
In his current role as the PM’s special envoy and a member of the prime minister’s cabinet, Hadi has exercised restraint in his conduct of diplomacy, something that he did not have to worry while in the opposition. So far, he has only rallied public support for the Palestinian cause and has stopped short of commenting on some Arab countries’ normalisation of relations with Israel. Some of them include the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an important Malaysian ally in the Middle East. The same cannot be said about PAS members, who have publicly labelled the Muslim countries that accede to the Abraham Accords as “traitors” to the Palestinian cause.
If it is any indication, Hadi has played a largely ceremonial role in representing Malaysia’s interests in the Middle East. While he might have moderated his controversial rhetoric compared to a year ago, his party has not. For Muhyiddin, Hadi’s usefulness is more political than diplomatic: he continues to play an integral role in solidifying the PN coalition by galvanising PAS’s traditional Malay-Muslim voter base in preparation for the impending general election.
Fauzan A. Roslee is a Research Associate at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore.