Graft links to the Gulf
Since this monthʹs upset in elections that ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak from office, a series of anti-corruption measures, not to mention statements uttered by Mahathir and his defence minister, Mohamad (Mat) Sabu, are sparking concern in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Backed by Sabu, Mahathir, who has in recent years cautioned against widespread anti-Shia sectarianism in Malaysia, has called Malaysiaʹs counterterrorism co-operation with Saudi Arabia into question. He has also reinvigorated anti-corruption investigations of former prime minister Razak, whom Qatari media describe as "Saudi-backed".
Najib Razak is suspected of having syphoned off billions of dollars from the state-owned strategic development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The fund – as well as Saudi and UAE entities allegedly connected to the affair – is under investigation in at least six countries, including the United States, Switzerland and Singapore.
Apparently anticipating a possible change in relations, political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, whose views are often seen as reflecting UAE government thinking, disparaged Mahathir and the Malaysian vote days after the results were announced. Abdulla focused on Mahathirʹs age. At 92, the latter just became the worldʹs oldest elected leader.
The political scientist was also at pains to point out that Mahathir had been Najib Razakʹs mentor before defecting to the opposition and forging an alliance with Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister under Mahathir during his first term of office and an Islamist believed to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Mahathir himself helped put behind bars. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is known for his intense opposition to political Islam, including the Brotherhood.
Cooling of relations on both sides
"Malaysia seems to lack wise men, leaders, statesmen and youth to elect a 92-year-old who suddenly turned against his own party and his own allies and made a suspicious deal with his own political opponent whom he previously imprisoned after fabricating the most heinous of charges against him. This is politics as a curse and democracy as wrath," said Abdulla on Twitter, two days after the election.
Similarly, Malaysian officials have signalled changing attitudes towards the Gulf. Seri Mohd Shukri Abdull, Prime Minister Mahathirʹs newly appointed anti-corruption czar, who resigned from the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2016 as a result of pressure to drop plans to indict the then prime minister Razak, noted that "we have had difficulties dealing with Arab countries (such as) Qatar, Saudi Arabia, (and the) UAE."
Those difficulties are likely to recur.