The visit of Saudi Arabia’s monarch King Salman to Malaysia this week was notable for many reasons. But it was clear from the discussions that took place between the two sides that terrorism was at the forefront. Indeed, the joint statement itself quite bluntly stated that terrorism “was the most important issue that was discussed.”
That should come as no surprise to close watchers of the relationship. It is certainly true that Malaysia’s engagement with Saudi Arabia is much more complicated than often portrayed. The logic of cooperation is rooted not just in converging interests like terrorism, but also the need for Malaysia’s government to boost its legitimacy by engaging with a leader of the Islamic world and the reality that Riyadh has played role in spreading more radical variants of Islam. It has also been marred by the Saudi link in Malaysia’s deepening 1MDB scandal implicating Prime Minister Najib Razak, for better or for worse (See: “The Danger of Najibizing Malaysia’s Foreign Policy“).
Nonetheless, amid the rise of the Islamic State and growing turmoil in the Middle East, the two countries have recognized the benefit of greater cooperation. Malaysia has joined the Saudi-led, 34-member Islamic alliance against the Islamic State. That has placed greater scrutiny on other measures the Southeast Asian state has taken since, from its participation in exercises with fellow Arab and Islamic countries to evacuation operations in Yemen (See: “Why is Malaysia in Saudi-led War Games in the Middle East?”). Ahead of Salman’s visit, there had already been talk about both countries further strengthening counterterrorism cooperation.
The visit this week saw some of that rhetoric begin to translate into reality. Some of this was fairly boilerplate though nonetheless important language in the joint statement, such as rejecting sectarianism and extremism and ensuring terrorism is not linked to any race, color, or religion (though that rightly raised questions about the Malaysian government’s own domestic record on that front). But there were more action-oriented items as well, most notably strengthening military cooperation by developing areas of joint training and exercises.
Unsurprisingly, what made the headlines was the establishment of the King Salman Center for International Peace, which is to be launched within the next three months. Though the announcement itself is new, the idea is not: conversations had been ongoing for months between the two sides to establish some kind of center to counter narratives and ideologies and promote Islam as a religion of peace and moderation.
Few details were publicly provided on the center itself, beyond the fact that it will be established in collaboration with the two defense ministries, the Islamic Science University of Malaysia, and the Muslim World League. But if realized, it would be the latest in a string of new institutions Malaysia has been setting up to deal with the rising Islamic State challenge. As I have noted before, Malaysia has been working with the United States to set up a Regional Counterterrorism Digital Communication Center in the Southeast Asia Regional Center for Counterterrorism (SEARCCT) and has also established its own Counter Messaging Center (CMC) run by the Royal Malaysian Police (See: “US, Malaysia and the War Against the Islamic State”).