Mohamad Sabu, the new defence minister, noted in a commentary late last year that Saudi (and UAE) wrath was directed "oddly, (at) Turkey, Qatar and Iran…three countries that have undertaken some modicum of political and economic reforms. Instead of encouraging all sides to work together, Saudi Arabia has gone on an offensive in Yemen, too. Therein the danger posed to Malaysia: if Malaysia is too close to Saudi Arabia, Putrajaya would be asked to choose a side."
Putrajaya, a city south of Kuala Lumpur, is home to the prime ministerʹs residence and a bridge with four minaret-type piers that is inspired by Iranian architecture.
Sabu continued: "Malaysia should not be too close to a country whose internal politics are getting toxic… for the lack of a better word, Saudi Arabia is a cesspool of constant rivalry among the princes. By this token, it is also a vortex that could suck any country into its black hole if one is not careful. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is governed by hyper-orthodox Salafist or Wahhabist ideology, where Islam is taken in a literal form. Yet true Islam requires understanding Islam, not merely in its Koranic form, but Koranic spirit."
Since coming to office, Sabu has said that he is reviewing plans for a Saudi-funded anti-terrorism centre, the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP), which was allocated 16 hectares of land in Putrajaya by the Razak government. Sabu is thus echoing statements made by Mahathir before the election. The opening of the centre has been twice postponed because Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cancelled his planned attendance. Malaysian officials have said that the Kingdom had yet to contribute promised funds for the centre.
The Sunni-Shia question
Shahriman Lockman, an analyst with the Kuala Lumpur-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies cautions that Malaysia will have manoeuvre carefully. "Whether we like it or not, whatever we think of them, Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Muslim world and in the Middle East. Their administration of the hajj makes it crucial for Muslim-majority countries to get along with them," Lockman says.
The fact that Mahathirʹs re-election has sparked hopes that he will move Malaysia away from Razakʹs embrace of Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative Islam as a political tool, despite the prime ministerʹs history of prejudice towards Jews and past anti-Shia record, is likely to reinforce Saudi and UAE concern that his moves could favour Iran.
Mahathir has vacillated in his statements between banning Shia Islam to avert sectarianism and calling on Sunni Muslims in Malaysia to accept the countryʹs miniscule Shia minority as a way of avoiding domestic strife.
What is likely to concern the Saudis most is the fact that Mahathir has said that accepting Shias as fellow Muslims is necessary because of the growth of the Iranian expatriate community in Malaysia. Analysts say the presence has sparked a greater awareness of Shia and Sunni animosity because of former prime minister Razakʹs divisive policies.