MALAYSIA is among the Muslim Asian countries to be caught in the middle in Qatar’s diplomatic crisis with its Arab neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain.
Putrajaya had in March signed a defence cooperation agreement with Qatar, but an anonymous source close to the Malaysian government has told Reuters that efforts to boost ties with the boycotted nation would likely be put on hold.
“We have more to lose by siding with Qatar,” said the source.
Relations between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia came under scrutiny after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, caught in the multi-billion dollar 1MDB financial scandal, explained away the billions of ringgit found in his personal bank account as a gift from the Saudi royal family.
Najib has denied any wrongdoing in the case which is now being investigated by judicial authorities across the globe, including the US Justice Department.
Saudi oil giant Aramco has also agreed to buy a US$7 billion (RM30 billion) equity stake in Petronas’ major refining and petrochemical project.
However, Qatar has also invested between US$12 billion and US$15 billion in Malaysia, says Reuters.
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said non-Arab Muslim countries like Malaysia would be “put on the spot” if the Saudis demand that its trade partners pick a side.
“They (Malaysia) can say either I do business with you, or say I’m not going to make that choice. Then the question would be how would the Saudis or Qatar respond to that,” Dorsey said. “But we’re not there yet, and there’s no certainty that it will get there.”
AFP reports that Saudi Arabia and its allies yesterday cut relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting extremism, in the biggest diplomatic crisis to have hit the region in years.
Yemen and the Maldives were among those who severed ties with gas-rich Qatar, which Riyadh accused of supporting groups, including some backed by Iran, “that aim to destabilise the region”.
Qatar denied any support for extremists and accused its neighbours of seeking to put the country under “guardianship”.
The crisis was likely to have wide-ranging consequences, for Qatar and its citizens as well as the Middle East and Western interests.
Qatar hosts the largest US airbase in the region, which is crucial in the fight against Islamic State group jihadists, and is set to host the 2022 football World Cup.
The dispute comes less than a month after US President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia and called for a united Muslim front against extremism.
It also followed weeks of rising tensions between Doha and its neighbours, including Qatari accusations of a concerted media campaign against it and the alleged hacking of its official news agency.
The Gulf states and Egypt said they were severing ties and closing transport links with Qatar, which relies on imports from its neighbours.
“The Saudis view Iran as the foremost terrorist threat rather than the Islamic State and a lot of non-Arab Muslims countries … would probably not agree with that,” Dorsey told Reuters.
Non-Arab Muslim states such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan are predominantly Sunni-Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia.
Indonesia has called for reconciliation and dialogue in the latest diplomatic clash, which is particularly acute for nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has the world’s sixth-largest army and the largest military in the Muslim world, says Reuters.
Pakistan maintains deep links with the establishment in Riyadh, which provided Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with political asylum after he was ousted in a 1999 military coup.
But with a large Shia minority and a shared western border with Iran, Pakistan has a lot to lose from rising sectarian tensions.
Pakistan has maintained official silence about the latest rift in the Arab world, loathe to be seen taking sides between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Pakistan also has close ties with Qatar itself, including a 15-year agreement signed last year to import up to 3.75 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas a year from the emirate, a major step in filling Pakistan’s energy shortfall.