Putrajaya’s hard stance on Qatar-based global news channel Al Jazeera is a sign that the once powerful Saudi lobby is returning to its former influence on the policies of the Malaysian government, MalaysiaNow has learnt.
Diplomatic sources have spoken of efforts to pressure the authorities into coming down hard on Al Jazeera, whose documentary on Malaysia’s treatment of migrants during the lockdown earlier this year sparked a string of actions against the news channel’s journalists.
Al Jazeera, financed by the Qatari government which is locked in a cold war stand-off with Riyadh and its Gulf allies, has condemned Malaysian police investigations into its journalists over the documentary aired on its 101 East programme in July.
“Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown” investigated the plight of thousands of undocumented migrant workers who were arrested during raids in Kuala Lumpur despite earlier assurance by the authorities that no immigration swoops would be conducted on foreign workers during the movement control order (MCO), Malaysia’s version of the pandemic lockdown which was eased in June.
Putrajaya criticised the report, calling it inaccurate, misleading and unfair, with police launching investigations for sedition, defamation and violations of media laws.
“The whole of this episode involving Al Jazeera in Malaysia shows the return of Saudi influence on the policies of an important Muslim government in Southeast Asia,” said a source close to diplomatic circles in Kuala Lumpur.
Meanwhile, a senior Middle East diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, told MalaysiaNow of “intense Saudi activities” to revive the kingdom’s influence in Putrajaya.
Al Jazeera’s brush with Malaysian authorities was not the first the news channel had faced with Muslim governments around the world, especially those aligned politically and theologically with Riyadh.
The news channel is banned in Egypt, which, incensed by its coverage of the popular protests that temporarily ousted the military regime in 2011, accused it of spreading fake news. It is also banned in UAE, a key ally of the pro-Washington alliance in the Gulf led by Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has a long-established foothold in Muslim communities worldwide, and Malaysia is no exception.
In the 80s, Islamic centres and schools were awash with petro-dollars to spread teachings inclined to Wahhabism, the doctrine that has dominated Saudi Arabia for close to a century.
But it was during the Najib Razak administration that Saudi influence reached a peak.
The good relations came to an abrupt end following Najib’s fall from power in 2018, with Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s government taking a more critical stand on Saudi policies in the Middle East and announcing a scale-back of Malaysia’s support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
Critics in the recent past had warned of a slide in Malaysia’s Muslim bureaucracy towards the Wahhabi strand of Islam promoted by Saudi scholars, thanks to flourishing Saudi-Malaysia ties, in part due to Putrajaya’s need to maintain cordial relations to secure a bigger annual haj quota.
But it was the 2018 closing down of the proposed King Salman Centre for International Peace in Kuala Lumpur, seen as Riyadh’s initiative to ramp up support among Muslim governments, which brought Saudi-Malaysia ties to an all-time low. The situation was worsened by the KL Summit, at which three of Riyadh’s greatest foes – Iran, Turkey and Qatar – gathered in Kuala Lumpur, sparking angry reactions from the kingdom.
Nonetheless, it will take more than a charm offensive for the Saudis, whose closest allies have recently been busy establishing diplomatic ties with Israel, to revive its influence in Malaysia.
“That development (warmer ties with Israel) has cost the Saudis what remaining goodwill they enjoyed in the Sunni world,” a Central Asian diplomat told MalaysiaNow.
Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh contributed to this report.