First published in freemalaysiatoday.com
PETALING JAYA: The recent visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud can be seen as part of efforts to strengthen the kingdom’s influence in Southeast Asia, an analyst said.
The Saudi monarch was in Malaysia earlier this week for a four-day visit, before his 1,500-strong entourage flew to Indonesia.
Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration pulled no brakes to ensure a grand state welcome for the Saudi leader, whose short stay saw both countries sealing agreements worth billions of dollars.
While this was the third time a Saudi monarch had visited the country, Salman’s entourage came at a time when the Saudis are said to have been wielding influence in the country’s affairs.
Just two years ago, Najib admitted to having received RM2.6 billion from the Saudi royal family, money he said was meant to aid Barisan Nasional’s campaign in the 2013 general election.
Veteran Malaysia observer Professor Bridget Welsh said Salman’s visit would help reinforce the view that Najib “has to rely on others for religious and external legitimacy”.
“The visit, however, has a limited domestic impact for him,” Welsh, of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies at the National Taiwan University, told FMT.
Welsh said Riyadh’s focus on the South East Asian region, with more than 200 million Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia, is a sign that it is moving away from its ally, the United States.
“This (visit) is less about Malaysia and Indonesia, than a recognition by the Saudi government that the new global environment, especially the (US President Donald) Trump administration, is not as favourable for them. Thus the outreach towards Asia.
“Saudi Arabia is promoting itself, its conservative religious ideology and business interests.”
She said Saudi Arabia had adopted a different strategy from the past, and this time it is ready to dish out large loans and business capital.
Such gestures, said Welsh, could also mean that the Saudis were “buying its loyalty from other Muslim countries”.
Think tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) said Salman’s visit should be seen as beneficial to both countries.
Its chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan said the visit should not be politicised.
“The reality is, it is just a visit from the leader of a country that we have good relations with. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything else.
“Bilateral relations with any country is good. And I think it is good that we are able to show our hospitality to the Saudi delegation,” he told FMT.
Najib had hailed Salman’s visit, saying Malaysia had a lot to gain from the Saudis’ renewed interest in the country.
He said they include the Saudi Arabian government’s move to increase sponsorship for Malaysian scholars in the kingdom, as well allowing bigger haj quota in haj quota.
The Saudis have also agreed to inject over RM30 billion in the Refinery and Petrochemical Integrated Development in Pengerang, Johor.