The deepening politicization of conservative Islam and concerns over the erosion of traditional religious practices and culture in Malaysia have brought the traditionally moderate multicultural nation’s ties to Saudi Arabia under new scrutiny.
Karima Bennoune, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for cultural rights, noted during a September visit deepening involvement of religious authorities in policy decisions, developments she said were influenced by “a hegemonic version of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula” that was “at odds with local forms of practice.”
The rapporteur’s statement alludes to the long reach of Saudi cultural influence made possible by decades of oil-financed proselytization via mosques and madrassas that promote Wahhabism, a puritanical interpretation of Islam, and the growing role of Saudi-trained Islamic scholars recruited into Malaysia’s civil service and religious establishment.
Wider public support for an interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity influenced by Saudi-sponsored ultra-conservatism has grown under the tenure of Prime Minister Najib Razak, whose office funds an Islamic bureaucracy promoting an exclusivist interpretation of the faith through various religious organizations.
This drift toward Islamism and its stranglehold on Sunni religious discourse has complicated communal relations in the country and galvanized pushback from Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs, who last month issued a rare statement expressing their collective concern over rising ethno-religious polarization.
“There’s this idea that the more like Arabs you are, the better Muslim you are. That’s the very real obliteration of our cultural heritage,” Marina Mahathir, founder of the Sisters in Islam organization and daughter of former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, said in a recent interview. “Arab culture is spreading, and I would lay the blame completely on Saudi Arabia.”
Other critics have accused the prime minister of overseeing an “Arabization” of Malaysia, linked to his government’s tacit approval of a controversial hudud bill in Parliament that sought to ease constitutional restrictions imposed on sharia courts to implement more severe physical punishments.
Ahead of general elections that must be called by next August, Najib and his ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) have rallied the majority Malay community by playing on fears of the erosion of Islam and the loss of Malay political power should opposition parties win the polls.
Hostility toward atheists, non-believers and the LGBT community has been on the rise, while Malaysian religious bodies also regard the small community of Malaysian Muslims adhering to Shia Islam as a potential threat. Critics say these groups are politically scapegoated to enable politicians and religious organizations to posture as defenders of Islam.
There are also indications Najib is leveraging his relationship with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who claims religious guardianship as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, to boost his Islamic credentials in a bid to appeal to religious hardliners, far-right Malay groups and conservative rural Muslim voters.
In July, Najib announced that the King Salman Center for International Peace (KSCIP), a permanent structure ostensibly designed to counter radical ideologies and promote Islam as a religion of peace and moderation, would be built on a 16-hectare piece of land in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative capital.
The center, named after the incumbent octogenarian Saudi king, is the most tangible symbol of Malaysia’s deepening cooperation with the Arab kingdom. KSCIP will function in collaboration with the two countries’ defense ministries, as well the Islamic Science University of Malaysia (USIM) and the Muslim World League, a major Saudi religious body known for propagating ultra-conservatism.
The prime minister and other top Malaysian officials have boasted domestically about the center, which currently operates at a temporary office. Mohammad bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince of Saudi Arabia now rapidly consolidating political authority in Riyadh, has pledged to visit Malaysia personally to launch the center, according to Najib.
“King Salman could have chosen any other country to build the center, but the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques still chose this country,” he told audiences at an open-house event marking the end of Ramadan, noting that past Malaysian leaders had never received such acclaim from the kingdom.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said the center would “not only focus on military aspects, but also on academic elements,” adding that it would fight terrorism “through soft power, counter-narrative and the winning of hearts and minds, as opposed to just military initiatives.” He did not divulge details, however, on the center’s actual operations.
KSCIP began as an initiative hatched during King Salman’s landmark visit to Malaysia in February during a month-long Asian tour that also saw Saudi delegations touch down in Indonesia and Brunei. The extended trip was seen by analysts as an opportunity for Sunni-majority countries in the region to court Saudi investment in a range of sectors and reduce their rising economic dependence on China.
Beyond projecting its Islamic clout eastward, Saudi Arabia sought cooperation on energy development and drawing Asian investments ahead of a 5% selloff of state company Saudi Aramco in 2018, expected to be the world’s biggest ever share flotation, though there are doubts on the valuation of the initial public offering.
Saudi Arabia’s national oil company, believed to be the most valuable company in the world, invested US$7 billion into Malaysia’s state-run oil giant Petronas during the trip, intended to develop an oil refinery and naphtha cracker project valued at $27 billion that would make Aramco the single largest investor in Malaysia.
Riyadh also pledged to provide up to 70% of the crude-oil requirements for the project, known as the Refinery and Petrochemicals Integrated Development, or RAPID.
The 300,000 barrel-a-day refinery, scheduled to start in 2019, will improve Malaysia’s chances of competing in the regional oil-refining and energy-storage sector now monopolized by Singapore.
The investment in Petronas is part of Aramco’s long-standing strategy of investing in refining to help lock in demand for Saudi crude amid challenges presented by US shale-oil producers, Russia and other Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) member states.
Saudi Arabia is Malaysia’s leading foreign source of crude oil, accounting for some 30% of its oil imports in 2016, while the country’s total trade with Saudi in 2016 increased by 27.8% year on year.
In 2015, Najib became embroiled in money-laundering accusations related to 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a heavily indebted state investment fund created and until recently overseen by the prime minister.
Saudi Arabia was pulled into the multibillion-dollar corruption scandal when Najib claimed $681 million found in his personal bank account was a donation from the Saudi royal family, rather than funds siphoned and embezzled from 1MDB.
Saudi officials publicly confirmed Najib’s claim, helping to rescue his political career from a major scandal, though critics remain skeptical of the Riyadh-backed alibi.
Though a Malaysian anti-corruption commission cleared Najib of all wrongdoing, the 1MDB debacle is currently under criminal investigation in six countries, including neighboring Singapore, Switzerland and the US, where investigators at the Department of Justice believe more than $3.5 billion was illicitly siphoned from the fund.
Closer political and economic ties have also heralded Malaysia’s integration into the Saudi military fold. In 2015, it joined the Saudi-led coalition of Sunni-majority states that operate from a joint operations center based in Riyadh. Malaysian defense officials maintain that their participation is limited to intelligence sharing.
The grouping was nominally formed to counter Islamic State (ISIS), though others see it as a sectarian military bloc against Shia-majority rival Iran and a bolster to the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen, where the kingdom is pitted against Shiite Houthi rebels.
Malaysian troops have since taken part in two extensive joint military exercises, Thunder of the North and North Sphere, on invitation of the Saudi government.
Malaysia’s involvement in these exercises has invited inquiry from opposition party Amanah Negara and others seeking clarity on the country’s involvement in Riyadh’s campaign in Yemen.
The queries arose after a UN report criticizing the Saudi-led alliance’s attacks on civilian targets and blockade of food and medicine supplies mentioned the presence of Malaysian officers at the joint headquarters where air strikes on Yemen are coordinated.
Hishammuddin has maintained that Malaysian troops are not involved in hostilities and are based in Saudi Arabia solely for humanitarian reasons and to evacuate Malaysian civilians in Yemen, of whom more than 600 have been flown out of the country. Najib’s government continues to maintain a stance of non-interference in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.
While Malaysia has generally enjoyed cordial relations and robust trade with Iran despite its legal discrimination of Shiites at home, a joint statement issued at the conclusion of King Salman’s visit to Malaysia that expressed “serious concerns over the Iranian interference in the internal affairs of countries in the region” received a critical response from Tehran, which called the statement “delusional.”
Malaysia has more credibly emphasized its neutrality toward the ongoing dispute between Qatar and a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries that severed diplomatic ties and imposed a blockade on the Qatar Peninsula in June.
Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited Malaysia in October amid speculation that Malaysian steel and timber exporters would move to fill the vacuum left in the wake of Doha’s diplomatic isolation. Underscoring its desire for friendly relations with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, top Malaysian officials have talked of playing an intermediary role in the crisis.
Yet Malaysia’s closer ties to Saudi Arabia have raised questions about the extent of its involvement in Middle East strife and appears to be putting strain on the country’s non-aligned stance. While Riyadh’s strategic rivalry with Iran has put Malaysian neutrality to a test, the sectarian dimensions of Saudi-funded evangelism are reverberating more clearly than ever in Malaysian public life.