Dennis Ignatius: Ismail Sabri’s Dubai debacle

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Whichever way you look at it, the debacle reflects poorly on Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah.


Ismail Sabri’s visit to the UAE (29-31 March) was, by all counts, a disastrous affair. No UAE official was on hand to greet him; he had to endure the hassle of clearing customs and immigration as a mere mortal, was not provided security or given outriders. It was certainly not what he was expecting.

In the aftermath of the fiasco, Wisma Putra pinned the blame on our ambassador to the UAE and our consul-general in Dubai, both relatively senior officers. They were recalled in disgrace and sent to the pool – a euphemism for the outhouse reserved for errant civil servants.

Wisma Putra also took the unprecedented step of putting out a long statement (apparently on the instructions of the foreign minister) accusing the two officers of dereliction of duty. The ministry said that they had failed to forward an official invitation from the UAE government to the prime minister to attend the World Government Summit held in conjunction with the closing of Expo Dubai. As well, they had failed to inform the UAE government of the prime minister’s arrival and neglected to ensure that proper protocol and security arrangements were made.

A junior member of the UAE embassy in Kuala Lumpur also let it be known that it was all the fault of the Malaysian embassy in the Emirates. “Due to the absence of any information given to our side, there was no official welcome or police outriders. It was a huge embarrassment, more so for the host country than the visitors,” he was quoted as saying.

But all these statements leave many questions unanswered.

In the first place, it is highly implausible that an experienced and well-regarded diplomat like Ambassador Tarid Sufian would be negligent in forwarding an official invitation from the UAE government. Besides, had an invitation been issued, wouldn’t the UAE government make further enquiries through its mission in Kuala Lumpur when it did not receive a response?

Then there’s the other equally implausible claim that the UAE authorities were unaware of Ismail Sabri’s travel plans. To travel on a private jet these days requires overflight and security clearance, landing permits, etc. from the government concerned. It is impossible, therefore, for the UAE authorities not to have known about the prime minister’s arrival. Whether the visit was official or otherwise, diplomatic courtesies were due the prime minister. Why was it withheld? Did it have anything to do with UAE’s unhappiness over 1MDB-related issues?

From what can be ascertained, there was, in fact, no formal invitation to Ismail Sabri to attend the Summit. Indeed, according to reliable sources, the UAE government had informed the Malaysian embassy that due to the summit and the Expo Dubai closing ceremony, they were not in a position to welcome a visit by Ismail Sabri. Nevertheless, somebody in the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) took the decision to proceed with the visit with predictable consequences.

The prime minister’s programme in Dubai too appeared to have been hastily patched together. According to the foreign ministry statement, his agenda included a visit to Expo Dubai (as it was about to close), a meeting with the staff of the Malaysia Pavilion to express appreciation (unheard of), witness the signing of several MoUs (no details) and attend the closing of the World Government Summit (to which he was not invited to speak). It looked more like a junket than a substantive bilateral visit.

At the last minute, as a face-saving gesture, a brief meeting was arranged with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the prime minister and vice-president of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, on the sidelines of the summit.

It is also quite incredible that neither the foreign minister nor senior officials in the PMO had bothered to check on the programme for the visit and seek to ascertain basic information about the agenda – all routine stuff when the prime minister travels abroad. Indeed, such a disaster could not have happened unless there was a system-wide failure at every level. Typically, the two diplomatic officers ended up as sacrificial lambs.

Whichever way you look at it, the debacle reflects poorly on Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah. It is no secret that problems at the ministry have been piling up since he took over (for the second time).  His leadership has been non-existent, his grasp of issues poor. His tenure at the ministry can best be described as the triumph of form over substance. Instead of engaging in the serious business of foreign policy and diplomacy, instead of inspiring his officers, he has been content with cheap publicity stunts (like his Bahasa Malaysia letter to the US Secretary of State). As with quite a few others in Ismail Sabri’s cabinet, the man is quite literally clueless. Ismail Sabri should have fired him instead of penalizing the ambassador and his colleague.

Whatever it is, the mood of anger and despair in the foreign ministry is now palpable. The leaked audio recording (since gone viral) by a disgruntled officer says it all: “We are living through the worst days in the history of Wisma Putra”.

What a sad commentary about a once-proud and much-admired foreign service; what a telling indictment of the steady decline of a nation once on the cusp of greatness. – Dennis Ignatius