Dennis Ignatius: Visit debacle is on the Saudis not Anwar

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There’s no escaping the conclusion that somehow something went terribly wrong with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia.

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Wisma Putra, in announcing the visit, described it as an “official visit” at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is also prime minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Wisma Putra statement also mentioned that meetings had been scheduled with the Saudi monarch and the crown prince, normal protocol for a visiting prime minister.

For some reason, neither of the scheduled meetings took place; Anwar left the Kingdom without meeting any senior Saudi ministers.

At first, the PMO tried to deflect criticism by pointing to the prime minister’s meetings with the OIC chief and the head of the World Muslim League. When that didn’t fly, the PMO offered the excuse that the start of the fasting month had thrown awry the crown prince’s schedule. When that raised even more questions, the PMO let it be known that Anwar was asked to extend his stay by a few more days to meet with senior Saudi officials but the prime minister had to decline due to prior commitments. All very bizarre, to say the least.

Wisma Putra subsequently denied that it had mismanaged the prime minister’s visit, making it clear that the government had received official confirmation of the visit as well as the meetings from both the Saudi embassy in Kuala Lumpur and the Saudi Foreign Ministry in Jeddah.

If the Saudi government had indeed agreed to the dates of the visit and confirmed the meetings, then the question arises as to why it failed to subsequently honour its obligation to receive the prime minister in a proper manner. It must have known that a failure to meet the king and the crown prince would be seen as a very public snub, particularly as it was Anwar’s first visit to the Kingdom as prime minister.

There is some speculation that the Saudis are unhappy with Anwar’s very close personal ties with Turkish president Erdogan whom the Saudis see as a rival. Others see a more sinister hand at work. One rumour making the rounds of the local diplomatic corps is that disgruntled Malaysian politicians fearful of being caught up in Anwar’s anti-corruption drive had a hand in the fiasco. If true, it would confirm reports that a high-stakes battle is being waged behind the scenes to discredit Anwar and his government.

Whatever it is, it represents a huge diplomatic fiasco and a setback to bilateral relations. If the Saudis did indeed confirm the visit but didn’t follow through with an appropriate program, they owe Malaysia an explanation, if not an apology.

Even if there was a mix-up over dates or problems with the scheduling, the Saudis could have easily thrown Anwar a lifeline by scheduling at least a brief meeting with the crown prince and allowing him to enter the Kaaba, an honour they had extended to previous prime ministers, including Muhyiddin Yassin, when he visited the Kingdom in 2021.

At the end of the day, the whole debacle reflects poorly not on Anwar but on the Saudis themselves. They connived with Najib and welcomed backdoor prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin but failed to treat Anwar with the respect and courtesy he deserves. This is on them, not Anwar. – Dennis Ignatius