Troubling questions have surfaced regarding the reception accorded to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during his recent official visit to Saudi Arabia, after it emerged that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who does double duty as the kingdom's prime minister, did not allocate time to meet with him.
Diplomats familiar with Saudi-Malaysian ties over the decades also drew comparisons with the official visit in March 2021 by then prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who held talks with Mohammed as well senior government leaders.
"A meeting with MBS would have been the highlight of any visit by a Malaysian prime minister, especially if it is considered an official visit," said a former Malaysian diplomat who served in various capitals in the Middle East, referring to the Saudi crown prince by his initials.
A Bernama report said the scheduled meeting with Mohammed did not take place as the crown prince had a change of plans ahead of the Ramadan month.
Anwar himself said he was disappointed at not being able to meet him, but added that Saudi leaders had requested him to extend his stay for two more days in order to meet with the kingdom's leaders.
Anwar also said that he could not stay longer as he had to attend an iftar (breaking of fast) event with the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and make an official one-day trip to Cambodia.
"But the fact that Anwar went on an official visit to Saudi Arabia, and that too to fulfil an invitation by MBS, only to be told that MBS was not able to meet because he had changed his plans, is nothing less than a major embarrassment," said the same diplomat.
A quick check of Saudi media reports showed little coverage of Anwar's visit.
Among those he met was the governor of Jeddah, the president of the Islamic Development Bank, and an official of the Muslim World League, a Saudi propagation outfit with which Anwar has been long associated.
"None of these leaders represent the pinnacle of Saudi power that any high ranking government leader should meet to make their trip worthwhile," said the same diplomat.
"Wisma Putra and the Malaysian embassy will have to answer many difficult questions about how a prime minister's official visit went downhill this way."
He said in contrast, Muhyiddin's visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2021 saw him in talks with crown prince Mohammed, as well as witnessing the signing of memorandums of understanding.
Upon his arrival in Riyadh, Muhyiddin was also greeted by Mohammed himself at the airport.
Earlier in Mecca, where he performed the umrah, Muhyiddin was granted access to the kaabah, a rare honour given only to heads of government and eminent Muslim figures.
Meanwhile, Anwar began his Saudi trip by arriving in Jeddah in order to perform the umrah. A Bernama report said he was greeted on arrival by the city's governor.
'Missing Saudi hospitality?'
Speaking to MalaysiaNow, a diplomatic source familiar with Malaysia's ties with Gulf nations questioned the excuse of a change in the crown prince's schedule making him "unable to meet his counterpart from a country that is one of Saudi Arabia's most important partners".
"The famed Saudi hospitality is missing here. This is rarely the case even for less friendly leaders," he added.
He said Anwar did not even have to show that he was frendlier to the Saudis than previous Malaysian leaders by raising the issue of the closure of a Saudi-backed centre in 2018.
"If he was invited for an official trip, he deserves to be accorded the proper protocols," he said.
At a press conference just before leaving home, Anwar said he disagreed with the decision by the previous Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration to stop the setting up of the King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP).
KSCIP was first proposed by Saudi monarch King Salman Abdul Aziz during his visit to Malaysia in 2017, and was approved by the then Barisan Nasional government headed by Najib Razak.
In 2018, the PH government headed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad ordered the closure of the centre, reflecting Putrajaya's move at that time to distance itself from Saudi's pro-Western policies.
Anwar's failure to meet with crown prince Mohammed is not the first diplomatic gaffe suffered by a Malaysian leader in recent years.
In April last year, MalaysiaNow reported that a communication blunder by top diplomats at the Malaysian embassy in the United Arab Emirates resulted in a lack of official presence to greet then prime minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was to attend a major trade expo.
The government had then blamed the Malaysian ambassador to the UAE, Tarid Sufian, and its consul-general in Dubai, Hasril Abdul Hamid, both of whom were recalled to Wisma Putra.