AnalysisSoleimani killing: what is Malaysia’s aim in call for Muslim unity?
- Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad swung behind Tehran following Trump’s assassination of the Iranian general
- He has also risked the ire of Saudi Arabia by likening the event to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Mahathir on Tuesday blasted the Trump administration’s targeted killing of General Qassem Soleimani as “immoral” and warned it could lead to an escalation in “what is called terrorism”.
But analysts said Mahathir’s remarks should be seen in the context of his administration’s long-held and sometimes controversial emphasis on ummah, or Muslim community, in foreign policy, rather than as a signal of shifting allegiances.
While the remarks raised eyebrows, analysts say the comments were not atypical for Mahathir, who won election last year but was also prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
“This is vintage Mahathir – the issues that get him passionate and he cares about. The push for unity within the Muslim ummah comes at a time when it seems the community is very divided and there’s a lot of conflict within the Muslim world,” said Thomas Daniel, a senior analyst at Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies.
Daniel pointed to the government’s foreign policy framework launched last year which restated the Muslim-majority’s nation’s commitment to “improve the condition of the ummah”, and announced Malaysia’s intent to play a prominent role in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Despite receiving invitations, the Saudis – along with allies such as the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain – stayed away from the summit, while Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who had hatched the idea for the forum with Mahathir last year, pulled out at the last minute after reportedly coming under pressure from the Saudis.
“Perhaps Prime Minister Mahathir and Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah feel that we have taken certain positions on strategic disputes and issues in the Middle East that we should not have taken,” said Daniel.
“Malaysia is supposedly a neutral, non-aligned country and we do not want to be getting too deeply involved into the geopolitical and strategic disputes of countries in the Middle East. Especially if it is a proxy war. The positions taken by the former administration – whether they were publicly acknowledged or not – amounted to more of a pivot than what Malaysia should have done.”
Daniel said concerns Riyadh might retaliate for Mahathir’s comments by limiting haj pilgrimage quotas were overstated. He said this was an effective tool in Saudi Arabia’s arsenal, but asked how often it had been wielded.
Julia Roknifard, an assistant professor at the University of Nottingham’s social sciences faculty in Malaysia, said any perceived diplomatic faux pas in Mahathir’s remarks could always be patched up later.
“Malaysia’s role in Middle East matters is very minimal, but Mahathir has raised the issue of ummah often so this is certainly [in character],” she said.
Also on Tuesday, Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a travel advisory for Malaysians in the Middle East.
“We are monitoring the current volatile situation in the Middle East and Gulf region,” said Saifuddin, the foreign minister, asking all Malaysians in the region to take safety precautions that included registering with the nearest Malaysian consulate or embassy.