Muslim Asia caught in the middle as diplomatic row rocks Middle East (JMD quoted on Reuters)


Non-Arab nations in Asia, such as
Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan, are
getting caught in the middle after Saudi
Arabia led a clampdown on Qatar,
accusing the tiny emirate of supporting
pro-Iranian Islamist militants.

Malaysia had rolled out the red carpet
for Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the
end of February, the first by a Saudi
king to Malaysia in more than a
decade. Then, the following month,
Kuala Lumpur signed a defense
cooperation agreement with Qatar.
A source close to the Malaysian
government said that the recent efforts
to strengthen ties with Qatar, including
a visit by the foreign minister last month,
will probably now be put on the

"We have more to lose by siding with
Qatar," said the source, who requested
On Monday, a half-dozen countries,
including Saudi Arabia, the United
Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain, cut
diplomatic ties with the energy-rich
emirate, accusing it of backing Tehran
and Islamist groups such as the Muslim
Brotherhood. Qatar has said it does not
support terrorism and the rupture was
founded on "baseless fabricated claims."
Doha now faces an acute economic plight
as it relies on Gulf neighbors for 80 percent
of its food imports.

The diplomatic clamp down on Qatar is
seen as an indirect jab at Iran, and leaves
non-Arab Muslims countries in an
"uncomfortable position", according to
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at
Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of
International Studies (RSIS).
"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.


Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan are
predominantly Sunni-Muslim countries
like Saudi Arabia. Jakarta has sometimes
tried to play a mediating role when
inter-Arab tensions have flared, particularly
between Saudi Arabia and predominantly
Shi'ite Muslim Iran.

Jakarta's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi
received a phone call from Iran’s Foreign
Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on
Monday who wanted to discuss the rift,
Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha
Nasir said.

Indonesia has called for reconciliation and
dialogue in the latest diplomatic clash.

The dilemmas are particularly acute for
nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has the
world's sixth-largest army and the largest
military in the Muslim world.

Sunni-majority 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 Shi'ite minority and a
shared western border with Iran, Pakistan
has a lot to lose from rising sectarian
tensions. In 2015, Pakistan declined a
Saudi call to join a Riyadh-led military
intervention in Yemen to fight
Iranian-allied insurgents.

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.

“Pakistan has to act very carefully. In
my opinion, there is only one option for
Pakistan: to stay neutral," said retired
army Brigadier Shaukat Qadir, now an
independent risk and security analyst.


Pakistan’s recently retired army chief,
General Raheel Sharif, traveled to
Riyadh in April to lead the Saudi-led
Islamic Military Alliance. The stated
mission of the multinational alliance
is to fight terrorism but it is increasingly
seen as anti-Iran.

“There are rumors flying around that
Raheel Sharif is pulling out of the
Saudi-led military alliance. I hope they
are true and he comes back soon,” said

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
in January 2016 visited both Riyadh and
Tehran along with Shariff, who was then
the army chief, in an attempt to bridge the
deepening chasm.

Relations between Malaysia and Saudi
Arabia have been in the spotlight over the
last two years after Saudi Arabia was
dragged into a multi-billion dollar corruption
scandal at Malaysian state fund lMDB,
founded by Najib.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing in the
money-laundering case which is now being investigated by several countries including
the U.S, Switzerland and Singapore.
During King Salman's visit to Malaysia,
Saudi oil giant Aramco [IPO-ARMO.SE]
agreed to buy a $7 billion equity stake in
Malaysian state energy firm Petronas'
major refining and petrochemical project.

But Qatar has also invested between $12
billion and $15 billion in Malaysia,
according to media reports.

RSIS' Dorsey 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 the UAE
respond to that," Dorsey said. "But we're
not there yet, and there's no certainty that
it will get there."

(Additional reporting by John Chalmers,
Joseph Sipalan, Kay Johnson and Fergus
Jensen; Editing by Bill Tarrant)


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