Internal sabotage, incompetence, loss of respect – reasons PM humiliated during UAE visit

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Like it or not, it seems the UAE has very little respect for our PM.

Every prime minister has to visit at least two places before a general election, or simply to boost popularity. Within Southeast Asia region, Indonesia is a must-visit for a Malaysian premier in order to get the blessing from the country’s president. After all, both countries are part of the same Malay Archipelago and share common historical roots, cultural heritage and religion.

Next stop is the Middle East. The mission is to get the Islamic credential by visiting the Arab world, preferably a photo-op with the King of Saudi Arabia and if possible, his allies in the region such as the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan, just to name a few. Saudi is essential due to its status as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Armed with a “Malay” credential from Indonesia and an “Islamic” credential from Arab, a Malaysian prime minister can then proceed to hoodwink Malay-Muslim voters with a perception that he is officially recognized as the defender of Malays and the protector of Islam. A visit to Qatar is also necessary because it is the richest country in the Middle East.

That’s why former Prime Minister Najib Razak cooked up the dubious story that the RM2.6 billion he had stolen was a donation from Saudi royal family. Had Najib said the money was a donation from China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, his story will sound silly. Former backdoor Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin too had visited Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and UAE last year for the same political purpose.

The current unelected Prime Minister Ismail Sabri, under tremendous pressure to dissolve the parliament and call for the 15th general election, was also trying to exploit his foreign visits to boost his popularity and legitimacy. Fresh from his tour of Southeast Asia after he was appointed as the prime minister in August 2021, the turtle-egg man flew to Qatar and UAE (March 27-31).

But both visits to grab his “Malay” and “Islam” credentials have been disaster, to put it mildly. He tried to impress upon President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to accept Bahasa Melayu or the Malay language as the second language in Southeast Asia. If the plan is accepted, he would be the greatest Malay hero as no prime ministers had succeeded to do so since independence.

Unfortunately, Sabri’s political stunt was a non-starter and DOA (dead on arrival) when Indonesia’s minister of education, culture, research and technology, Nadiem Makarim, flatly rejected the use of the Malay language. The Indonesian minister lectured that it should be the Indonesian language – not Malay language – that should be the appropriate choice as the official language of ASEAN.

The Malaysia leader’s visit to the UAE was even more humiliating. Ismail Sabri was the only prime minister in history who had to wait like ordinary folks in the arrival hall for passport and immigration clearance. Worse, there was no security coverage like motorcade and police escort that should be accorded for a foreign prime minister as per standard operating procedure.

So, what the heck actually happened? It was already bad that the premier did not get to rub shoulders with King Salman or Crown Prince Mohammed. It got worse when he was treated like a “nobody” in Dubai, with not even a single UAE official present to greet him. The normal protocol is to send a senior minister of the host country to receive foreign dignitaries.

If would be a consolation if the UAE had sent a “janitor” to greet PM Ismail Sabri, since nobody would notice it anyway because everyone was wearing a face mask. At least, the government-controlled news media can spin and twist that the Gulf state had sent someone. As a result of the extremely embarrassing drama, two senior diplomats in the UAE were ordered home and put in cold storage.

But was it really the fault of Ambassador Tarid Sufian and Consul-General Hasril Abdul Hamid, the only senior Malaysian officers present at the Dubai airport to receive turtle-egg Ismail Sabri? So far, the blame has been put squarely on both senior officers for failing to coordinate administrative and logistical matters during the premier’s visit to the UAE from March 29 to March 31.

The foreign ministry said in a statement on Monday (April 11) – “The failure had resulted in the prime minister having to wait long at the arrival hall for passport and immigration clearance”. The Sabri administration has also blamed the two diplomats for failing to inform the foreign ministry about the World Government Summit, which was held during the Dubai Expo.

The government statement said – “The Wisma Putra leadership only knew about the summit on March 30 through a different source. Should we have been informed of the summit, certainly efforts would have been made so that the prime minister could deliver a speech at the programme”. Nevertheless, PM Ismail managed to attend the closing ceremony of the summit after receiving an invitation to the event.

Firstly, why make the two diplomats stationed in the UAE as the only sacrificial lambs when Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah is fully responsible for the screw-up? Secondly, how could a senior and experienced diplomat like Ambassador Tarid Sufian have overlooked important details involving the country’s prime minister? To do so would be tantamount to committing career suicide.

Ambassador Tarid was a career diplomat and he joined the Malaysian Administration Diplomatic Service in March 1994. He had served as Second Secretary at the Embassy of Malaysia in Philippines and First Secretary in Sudan as well as the Ambassador of Malaysia in Algeria. He became Ambassador of Malaysia in the UAE on September 2019.

This means Tarid was responsible for the Agong’s (King) five-day visit to the UAE in December 2020, not to mention former PM Muhyiddin’s visit to the same country in March 2021. Exactly how could the ambassador successfully manage the official visits of the King Sultan Abdullah and PM Muhyiddin, but somehow failed to do so for PM Ismail Sabri?

Even if the diplomat did screw up, it’s false for Sabri government to claim that it only knew about the summit on March 30 through a different source. What source was the clueless and incompetent government talking about? A simple check with Google shows that as early as March 7, Arab news media had started promoting the World Government Summit, which ran from 29-30 March at Expo 2020 Dubai.

Doesn’t the Prime Minister Office or Ministry of Foreign Affairs have computers or internet to do basic checking? Were all the staff as clueless as their boss, or had they been sleeping on the job? How could the government claim to know only about the summit on March 30 when the PM already knew he would be visiting the UAE from March 29 to March 31, as part of the tour to Qatar and UAE (March 27-31)?

Does it make any sense that the entire delegation was already in Qatar beginning March 27, but none of them knew about the summit until March 30 – three days later? The unfair treatment of the two diplomats apparently has triggered displeasure and anger within the foreign ministry, especially after Foreign Minister Saifuddin’s refusal to protect his own boys.

Another report says the ambassador had actually told Wisma Putra that the UAE government disagreed over the timing of Ismail Sabri’s visit as it would clash with the Dubai World Expo 2021, which attracted hundreds of VIPs from around the world. However, the PM, desperate for the tour to boost his popularity, had refused to consider the advice and bulldozed his visit to the Gulf state.

While the Prime Minister Office can give an ultimatum to the Malaysian diplomats to arrange for the arrival of the PM no matter what the problems are, the diplomats cannot give the same ultimatum to the UAE government. What had transpired could be that Dubai had no time to entertain Sabri’s arrogance and stubbornness, leaving the poor diplomats with the ball in their court.

There’s little doubt that Foreign Minister Saifuddin knew about the problem. The burning question is whether Saifuddin, a member of Bersatu (Malaysian United Indigenous Party), had deliberately sabotaged Ismail Sabri (vice-president of UMNO – United Malays National Organization) or simply did not wish to go against the prime minister, hoping the problem would fix itself.

Saifuddin is quite a useless minister himself. In his attempt to apple polish the prime minister’s desire to make Bahasa Melayu the lingua franca in the region, he sent an official letter in Malay language to the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. It was a dumb political stunt as the letter would go straight to the dustbin. He should be grilled to find out whether he did the same with the UAE.

It’s absolutely interesting that the UAE government did not try hard enough to spare an official – any official – to welcome the Malaysian prime minister. Even though the Dubai World Expo 2021 has eaten up resources to accommodate hundreds of VIPs, how many of them were a head of state like Ismail Sabri? He is no ordinary VIP, but the prime minister of a Muslim country, albeit an unelected one.

It’s also hard to believe that Dubai did not have any leftover police escort for PM Sabri. Even if there aren’t any junior official or outriders to spare, it was puzzling that the premier, who possesses a diplomatic passport and A-1 Visa, did not enjoy special immigration clearance. It was not a private visit and Sabri’s travel itineraries – security clearance and landing permits – would have to be granted by the UAE beforehand.

Like it or not, it seems the UAE has very little respect for the temporary PM, or did not think he deserved the same treatment as other VIPs from other countries. As a face-saving gesture, a brief meeting with Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum was hastily arranged at the eleventh hour. But the damage has been done. Do you think the Arab will give the same treatment had it been Joe Biden or Xi Jinping?

Perhaps the humiliation is due to a combination of several factors – internal sabotage, incompetence, arrogance and lack of respect for the clueless prime minister. A normal company secretary would have done a better job than the government of Ismail Sabri. The secretary would make sure her boss’ accommodation and travel itineraries are in order before the trip. – Finance Twitter