Malaysian Defense Minister Calls for Review of Troops in Saudi Arabia

Zam Yusa
Kuala Lumpur
180620-MY-troops-620.jpg Malaysian Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu (right), looks on during his bilateral meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Singapore, June 3, 2018.

The Malaysian government on Wednesday announced a review of its military presence in Saudi Arabia amid the Arab nation’s involvement in a protracted war in Yemen.

Mohamad Sabu, Malaysia’s new defense minister, said the review was necessary because troops had been sent to the Middle East by the previous government to prepare for the evacuation of Malaysians from Yemen.

“Malaysia has never taken part in the operation against Yemen, which is a fellow Islamic country,” Sabu said in a press release. “Nevertheless, the presence of the Malaysian armed forces in Saudi Arabia indirectly entraps Malaysia in the Middle East conflict.”

Sabu did not release details on the number of troops in Saudi Arabia nor did he announce a timetable for possible changes.

“The government will make a decision in the near future on the subject after the revaluation is completed,” he said.

The statement confirmed the previous administration’s claim that Malaysia was not involved in the Saudi-led coalition war in Yemen.

The conflict escalated in March 2015 following a military operation led by Saudi Arabia in support of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi against rebels said to be backed by Iran.

Last year, then-Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia did not involve troop participation in any military offensives or operations, whether in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.

His comments followed media reports citing an annual report by the U.N. sanctions monitor that investigated 10 coalition air strikes between March and October 2016 in Yemen. At least 292 civilians died, including about 100 women and children.

The coalition’s chief of joint operations told U.N. officials that officers from France, Malaysia and Britain were present at Saudi headquarters during the airstrikes.

“When we were there, the Saudi Arabia leadership gave our armed forces some lessons at headquarters. I don’t think that is a problem,” Hishammuddin said at the time. “Our policy to stay within Saudi Arabian borders has not changed.”

The troop review follows an earlier decision by the new government to review the operation of a Saudi-supported counter-terrorism center. On May 22, Sabu’s first day on the job, he announced plans to review the King Salman Center for International Peace.

Details need to be made clear: analyst

International security analyst Mohamad Abu Bakar, meanwhile, urged the new government to dig deeper into the military presence in Saudi Arabia.

“We need to know how far we have gone with our troops’ presence in Saudi Arabia and in the Yemen issue and whether it can drag us further into conflicts in the Middle East,” he told BenarNews. “Just like the Saudi-backed counter-terrorism center in Malaysia, it’s good that Mohamad Sabu will have a relook at the defense cooperation with the Saudis.”

The analyst was referring to the King Salman Center, which is operating at its temporary office in Kuala Lumpur until the main building in Putrajaya is finished.

The former head of Universiti Malaya’s Department of International and Strategic Studies said Sabu needed to get the details of the Malaysian military’s mission in Saudi Arabia.

“How many troops and equipment are involved, what kind of expertise do we share and how much this mission costs us? These aren’t clear,” he said.

“Yemen is a very poor country but the Saudis keep bombing the country. Getting ourselves involved in the conflict can backfire,” he said.

Saudi connection

Sabu was critical of Malaysia’s Saudi Arabia connections even before last month’s general election.

He lambasted both the Malaysian army’s presence there and the approval of the King Salman Center following Saudi monarch Salman Abdul Aziz’s visit to Kuala Lumpur last year. The previous administration had planned for the counter-violent extremism center to be located on a massive plot in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s federal administrative center.

Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the KL-based Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said the new scrutiny would affect Malaysia’s relationship with Gulf nations.

“The new defense minister has previously said that we need to maintain a certain distance from Saudi Arabia,” Shahriman told BenarNews.

“That, combined with the inevitable difficulties that Malaysian investigations into 1MDB will face in the Gulf states, means our relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE will be less cordial than it was before.”

The new government has reopened an investigation into the alleged theft of billions of dollars from state development fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad. That investigation could examine the involvement of Saudi oil company PetroSaudi in 1MDB.


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