Saudi donation key to unstable region

Malaysia’s Najib Razak is looking secure again. Source: Wikimedia

The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MCAA) and Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali today cleared Prime Minister Najib Razak of any criminal activity and corruption allegations.

Instead, their investigation found Najib had received “a personal donation …. from the Saudi royal family, which was given to him without any consideration”.

The inquiry also found “a sum of US$620 million [RM2.03 billion] was returned … to the Saudi royal family, because the sum was not utilised”.

These conclusions were reached, in part, through the cooperation of Saudi officials as the “MACC in their investigation personally met and recorded statements from witnesses including the donor which confirm that the donation was given to [the] PM personally.”.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Malaysia has always been a close one, ever since former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad forged strong economic ties and Najib strengthened the security bond.

Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has long been concerned with regional instability, due to a rise in Islamic radicalisation. Recent events in Indonesia, the arrest of terrorist suspects in Malaysia and the temporary rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt all serve to reinforce these concerns.

To avoid this instability spreading, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy provides support to those countries with broadly aligned interests, based on a shared Sunni Muslim demographic and a desire to increase political stability.

There are numerous examples of Saudi’s policy manifesting itself in the form of donations to “moderate” Islamic leaders who take a tough line on extremism and security.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was praised by US President Barack Obama for his efforts in countering extremism. Sharif is cooperating with the international community to tackle Islamism and since 2014 Pakistan has conducted a joint military offensive which has resulted in the lowest number of terrorist attacks since 2008.

In March 2014 it was reported that anonymous ‘friendly countries’ had made a payment of US$1.5 billion into the bank account of the Pakistan Development Fund. It was heavily rumoured at the time that the donor in question was a member of Saudi royal family.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is widely seen as an Islamic moderate compared to the previous administration. In 2015, al-Sisi called on religious leaders to shift the narrative of Islam to a moderate voice and shed the radical rhetoric.

In March 2015 Saudi Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz announced he was donating US$4 billion to the Egyptian Central Bank in order to stimulate Egypt’s economy. The donation came as al-Sisi said Egypt needed US$200-$300 billion to lift the country from its economic turmoil

Najib is globally recognised as a leader against extremism, demonstrated by him hosting the International Conference on Deradicalisation and Countering Violent Extremism in Kuala Lumpur this month.

Opening the conference, the prime minister won praise for his tough stance, telling delegates: “I make no apology for taking every step to preserve … safety, and for making the security of all Malaysians my first priority.”  He went onto say that “we will not wait for an outrage to take place before putting all measures necessary in place,” and that “there are not civil liberties under Daesh”.

Australia’s Justice Minister Michael Keenan told the conference: “The prime minister made an important point that one of the greatest liberties we have is the liberty to live without violence”. Indonesian Anti-terrorism Agency director for international cooperation Petrus Golose said his government was in the process of amending its legislation on counterterrorism by referring to Malaysian laws.

Saudi Arabia attended the conference, as Malaysia is one of the signatories of Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Military Alliance which also includes Jordan, the UAE, Pakistan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Benin, Turkey, Chad, Togo, Tunisia, Djibouti, Senegal, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Gabon, Guinea, Palestine and the Comoros, Qatar, Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Maldives, Mali, Malaysia, Egypt, Morocco, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.

The security relationship builds on the economic bonds developed during the time of Mahathir Mohamad who actively courted the Saudis.

Between 1975 and 1993 successive Malaysian governments received US$83 million worth of donations from the Saudi Fund for Development (SFD). However, Saudi investment really kicked off under the former prime minister and totalled US$37 million in 1990-2001 alone.

Mahathir’s government accepted US$2.5 million worth of Saudi loans in the early to mid-1980s to build five hospitals and US$31 million for the second phase of the Port Project on the island of Penang and the Timur-Barat highway project.

Najib has built on this close relationship, further evident when he paid a short visit to the kingdom in 2015.

There he spoke of the need to “…practise the concept of moderation as it is a concept that is based on the history of the Prophet Muhammad”. He drew attention to the “good bilateral relations between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia” and said he was “confident that this cooperation and good relations to benefit both countries and peoples in various fields and matter”.

The rise of extremism throughout Asean, coupled with the global economic uncertainty, shows why it is important that Malaysia works with and builds on, such strong relations with its neighbours.