April 3, 2023
KUALA LUMPUR – A year ago, two Malaysian diplomats were recalled from the United Arab Emirates following protocol failure for the Prime Minister’s Dubai visit. Wisma Putra took the unusual step of issuing a three-page statement detailing how the officers failed to manage the necessary logistical and administrative arrangements for Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s official visit. No names were mentioned but there were enough red faces to go round from the fiasco.
One year on, a trip involving another Prime Minister created a ripple of a different kind. No one is blamed, so far, but it is enough to cause embarrassment for many parties – not only in Malaysia, unfortunately also perhaps in another country.
The official trip of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to Saudi Arabia coincided with the start of Ramadan. The 10th Prime Minister and his delegation were the envy of many Muslims, who could only dream of spending their first day of the holy month in the holiest city in Islam, Mecca.
On the day he departed on March 22, Wisma Putra issued a statement on his three-day visit at the invitation of the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Salman Al Saud. The statement also said Anwar was scheduled to meet with King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Crown Prince. But by the third day, word travelled back to Malaysia on unhappiness that the meetings did not materialise.
No one wanted to confirm it but Anwar, quoted by Bernama, said that the Saudi royal has requested him to extend his visit for two more days since the country’s leadership had just rearranged their schedules during Ramadan.
“I welcome this but am a bit upset as I could not fulfil, including the meeting with Saudi King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Crown Prince because of an iftar event with (the Yang Di-Pertuan) Agong and visit to Cambodia,” he told Malaysian journalists travelling with his delegation.
Any visit to a country by the head of government – whether official or working visit – is embarked on to achieve certain goals. A visit is definitely one of the many mechanisms to strengthen diplomatic relations. Before a visit starts, the leader would normally be thoroughly advised on the expected itineraries. It is very important for any leader, minister or official to weigh the potential benefits of the visit against the expenses as an official visit by a head of government is definitely costly as it involves other expenditures despite it being at the invitation of another country.
After Anwar’s unhappiness revelation, some politicians were quick to criticise him and described the official visit as a failure because he did not meet the two important figures in Saudi, despite labelling the trip as an official visit and announcing the scheduled meetings.
Members of Parliament on the government’s side as expected defended the Prime Minister as one would expect them to do. Whether their argument makes sense, there is no need to drag in foreign figures like in the case of Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Karim who decided to take to Facebook telling Malaysians to direct their anger towards the Crown Prince and King Salman if Anwar was embarrassed by the Saudi royal family.
On Monday at the Dewan Rakyat sitting, several opposition MPs were making jibes on the trip via pantun during question time but Machang MP Wan Ahmad Fayshal Wan Ahmad Kamal took one step further when he tried to table an emergency motion to discuss the trip. It was rejected by the speaker.
On Tuesday, Wisma Putra issued a statement to explain what transpired and described the act of certain groups in criticising the trip as unfair to the ministry and the Malaysian government as well as the Saudi government. The ministry said the issues raised were speculative in nature and far from the actual facts.
The statement was quite long –five pages in total. But whether it was satisfactory enough is up for debate.
One of the questions raised was if indeed the trip was at the invitation of the Crown Prince and that the diplomatic notes from the Saudis made reference to the two scheduled meetings, why was there none taking place?
Wisma Putra explained it was professional and followed the SOP in preparing a leader’s official trip but is the ministry blaming the Saudis? And if the Saudis are not able to realise an audience with the King and Crown Prince, could this then be translated to a royal snub?
It is understood the Third Person Note (diplomatic correspondence) received from the embassy stated that the Saudi government welcomes the visit but was non-committal on the programme.
“If that is what the TPN indicated, the trip should have just been a private umrah visit but still be given guest status. It would have avoided an embarrassing situation,” said former foreign minister Tan Sri Syed Hamid Albar.
There is no denial Saudi Arabia is the “big brother” in the Muslim world with its reach, influence and impact on the Muslim at large. Countries seeking to build strong relations with Saudi Arabia are aware of the many sensitivities in dealing with the Saudis.
“The Saudis and for that matter all Arab States keep deep memories on every incident against them.
“Malaysia with its close and strong fraternal relationship should be able to smoothen out any diplomatic misunderstanding and use it to our advantage consistent with prudence diplomacy,” said Syed Hamid.
At the end of the Saudi trip, Anwar announced that Kuala Lumpur is open to restarting talks on building the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) in Malaysia, which ironically was shut down when Pakatan Harapan government was in power. Maybe it is to smooth ruffled feathers but this government must follow up on its promise.
Whatever explanation and justification that have been put out either from those linked to the prime minister or this government, show they know the visit was less than what it should have been. It looks like the the Foreign Minister and his ministry have a lot of fixing to do.