WHY KING SAL­MAN’S VISIT IS SIG­NIF­I­CANT

Saudi Ara­bia’s trade deals show the level of con­fi­dence it has in Malaysia and Na­jib’s lead­er­ship

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer is a se­nior fel­low at the In­sti­tute of Strate­gic and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, Malaysia This ar­ti­cle ap­peared yes­ter­day in TheN­ational in the Opin­ion sec­tion. TheN­ational is the lead­ing English­language voice in the Mid­dle East; www.then­ational.ae

THERE was no mis­tak­ing the ar­rival of King Sal­man Ab­du­laziz AlSaud of Saudi Ara­bia and his en­tourage in Malaysia on Sun­day morn­ing. Traf­fic stood still for 30 min­utes as we waited for the 600-strong royal party to make their way from the air­port to the cen­tre of Kuala Lumpur — a near-endless stream of limos, lor­ries, out­liers and am­bu­lances, sirens scream­ing.

This is King Sal­man’s first trip to South­east Asia and the re­gion since as­cend­ing the throne in 2015. As the des­ti­na­tion for um­rah and the haj, his coun­try has a very spe­cial place in the hearts of the Mus­lim-ma­jor­ity coun­tries he will be vis­it­ing, which in­clude In­done­sia, Brunei and the Mal­dives. But the king’s ac­tual pres­ence is some­thing dif­fer­ent — some­thing rare, momentous and sig­nif­i­cant in a num­ber of ways.

On a prac­ti­cal and quan­tifi­able level, the Asian tour is about trade. In Kuala Lumpur on Tues­day, Malaysia’s Petronas signed a deal for Saudi Aramco to in­vest US$7 bil­lion (RM31 bil­lion) in an oil and petro­chem­i­cal re­fin­ery in the south­ern state of Jo­hor. Other agree­ments and op­por­tu­ni­ties for busi­nesses in both coun­tries will also be an­nounced, and Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Datuk Seri Na­jib Razak has al­ready used this to hit back at crit­ics who ac­cused him of “sell­ing” the coun­try by se­cur­ing mas­sive in­vest­ments from China dur­ing his visit to Bei­jing in Novem­ber.

The Saudi deals show the level of con­fi­dence other coun­tries such as the king­dom have in Malaysia, he has said. In­done­sian Pres­i­dent Joko Wi­dodo will make a sim­i­lar claim if, as ex­pected, US$25 bil­lion worth of Saudi in­vest­ments in his coun­try is un­veiled when the tour­ing party moves on to Jakarta.

The king’s visit and the huge amount of new trade be­ing gen­er­ated around it are also very pub­lic votes of con­fi­dence in the eco­nomic re­form pro­grammes in the two South­east Asian na­tions.

Both have un­der­taken mea­sures to im­prove long-term re­silience and com­pet­i­tive­ness, such as the ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion or re­moval of sub­si­dies. Malaysia has also in­tro­duced a Goods and Ser­vices Tax (GST) to widen the tax base. But, nei­ther of these moves have been pop­u­lar — who likes pay­ing more for any­thing? — and op­po­nents have been quick to try to ex­ploit dis­con­tent at their im­pact.

The ar­rival of King Sal­man draws at­ten­tion to the fact that his gov­ern­ment has been un­der­tak­ing al­most the ex­act same re­forms, re­mov­ing or cut­ting key sub­si­dies last year, and agree­ing in Jan­uary to im­pose a new five per cent value added tax — in essence, the same as GST. If Saudi Ara­bia now deems it wise to em­u­late the re­forms of the Malaysian and In­done­sian gov­ern­ments, that is an even greater vin­di­ca­tion than the plau­dits of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund and World Bank of­fi­cials who have al­ready com­mended the moves.

It is also an ac­knowl­edge­ment that the “new nor­mal” of lower growth and a need to broaden sources of rev­enue af­fect a wide range of coun­tries, Saudi Ara­bia as well as Malaysia, In­done­sia and China, which King Sal­man is also to visit.

At a time when the United States has been send­ing mixed — and some­times dis­tinctly un­friendly — sig­nals to many coun­tries, in­clud­ing al­lies, the Saudi King’s tour also sug­gests that links in Asia need to be strength­ened and may prove more re­li­able than with the “Amer­ica First” of Don­ald Trump.

Mil­i­tar­ily, Saudi Ara­bia’s Mus­lim coun­tert­er­ror­ism coali­tion may well re­ceive a boost, with sev­eral coun­tries likely to of­fer more con­crete par­tic­i­pa­tion than thus far. All states on the tour have vested in­ter­ests in sharing do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional coun­ter­rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and de­rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion pro­grammes, in which Saudi Ara­bia and Malaysia have par­tic­u­lar ex­per­tise.

More­over, there are po­lit­i­cal gains to be reaped by all in­volved. In some quar­ters, there may be some dis­quiet about the con­ser­va­tive na­ture of Is­lam in Saudi Ara­bia and its ex­por­ta­tion to other coun­tries. But, there is a grow­ing con­sen­sus, among pop­u­la­tions for whom re­li­gion is in­creas­ingly a marker of iden­tity, about Saudi lead­er­ship in the Mus­lim world. King Sal­man’s tour un­der­lines that, for he is be­ing greeted with the re­spect and accorded the pomp and cer­e­mony ap­pro­pri­ate to a key power.

That very same lead­er­ship role in the Mus­lim world then re­flects back on his hosts; on Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and China, who surely must be just and fair gov­er­nors of their Mus­lim mi­nor­ity in Xin­jiang and else­where if King Sal­man is happy to visit. On Jokowi, who does not push an overtly Is­lamic agenda, but, who nev­er­the­less found it ex­pe­di­ent to make a quick pil­grim­age to Mecca be­fore the 2014 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to counter in­sin­u­a­tions that he was a Chris­tian. King Sal­man’s visit will boost his cre­den­tials as a Mus­lim leader, as they will those of Na­jib.

The visit — dur­ing which the king has de­scribed re­la­tions with Malaysia as be­ing at ‘an all­time high’— reval­i­dates Na­jib’s sta­tus as a Mus­lim leader, re­in­forces his doc­trine of ‘wasatiyyah’...

The visit — dur­ing which the king has de­scribed re­la­tions with Malaysia as be­ing at “an all-time high”— reval­i­dates Na­jib’s sta­tus as a Mus­lim leader, re­in­forces his doc­trine of wasatiyyah or mod­er­a­tion, and also backs up his claim that the US$700 mil­lion re­ceived into his bank ac­count be­fore the last elec­tion was a do­na­tion from the Saudi royal fam­ily, as the Saudi for­eign min­is­ter has con­firmed.

The tour, in short, should be a win-win for all in­volved. But, it is also a chance for friends sep­a­rated by the In­dian sub­con­ti­nent to get to know each other bet­ter. They should visit more of­ten. Who knows how much more they could achieve work­ing even closer to­gether?

King Sal­man Ab­du­laziz Al-Saud in­spect­ing the guard of honour dur­ing the wel­come cer­e­mony at Par­lia­ment Square in Kuala Lumpur.

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