Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s visit to the Middle East, particularly to Turkey and Saudi Arabia, reflects the growing need for the country in stepping up its geostrategic role in transcending the conventional regional economic and security centric affiliation. The meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi provides the missing key to for on the ground short term relief to the crisis involving the civilians, with the right regional effort.
It will be difficult for a solitary Malaysian push and pressure, and it will need the leverage and influence of combined interests and importance of vital players including Doha, Riyadh and Ankara, where Malaysia has maintained good ties with the latter two. Malaysia has also maintained growing ties with Tehran, and thus Malaysia’s role is also tied to the returns from these players in their US ties. Riyadh’s normalization plans with Israel are now jeopardised, and this affects Washington’s Middle East objectives.
The deep complexity of the Israel-Palestine conundrum and with the current power rivalry and bloc divide contribute to the impasse that has divided the world. Initial ground works to stabilize the region and prevent further escalation have been intensifying, but remain polarized by the ongoing power and West-East and North-South polarization.
Conflicting Dilemma for Ongoing West-Moscow-Beijing Rivalry
Beijing and Moscow have worked across different platforms in trying to provide solutions and pushing for de-escalation. Moscow has also condemned the West’s hypocrisy and blamed the US as the prime factor in the long running Middle East crisis that has long dominated Middle Eastern politics and moulded the geopolitics of the region in its own interest frame.
The US, on the other hand, faces a greater fallout in its decades of soft power building for the global acceptance and adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy and a rules-based order, with this crisis further eroding its perception and image worldwide, especially in the Muslim world and the Global South. The US is trying to work with all sides in ensuring that both Israel’s rights to security and self defence and the Palestinians’ rights to statehood and safety are met, and has been arguing that Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people and its will, as well as the need to defend the rules based order. This narrative faces a huge roadblock in getting the accepted understanding from the wider part of the non-Western world, further eroding its already vulnerable security projections from a three-pronged potential hard power threats in the Middle East, Ukraine and the continuous sabre rattling flashpoints in the Indo Pacific involving China.
Besides, there is a total distinction of the views and acceptance of Hamas between the US and the West and Malaysia, where Hamas is branded as a terrorist organisation by Washington.
This Middle East crisis has also been a key opening for additional attack points on the failure of the Western led rules based order, as recently raised by Putin on how the West is using this global rules based order to facilitate its own colonialist framework and intention and the capitalisation of this issue by both Moscow and Beijing in further cementing their appeal and diplomatic credentials in the Global South.
Moscow and Beijing have been taking a close strategic attention to both the crises in Ukraine and in the Middle East, both in expanding their presentation of viable alternative to the Western led system and a more inclusive solution approach as a useful gauge in their future orientations or planning in their geostrategic power moves against the West.
From Ukraine to the current Israel-Hamas crisis, analysts have argued on the risks of Beijing using this opening for a bolder strategic effort in flashpoints in South China Sea or Taiwan, the void and distraction of the US in the Middle East and in Ukraine. Potentiality of a widened and protracted conflict involving Hezbollah and direct involvement of Iran is also giving a new opening for Moscow in exerting a new power shift in the region and with the Ukraine card.
However there are cracks in the Global South itself including in Africa and also division in the Arab League in the initial response to the crisis, all caused by conflicting contextual situations and interests now and fear of changing returns and impact of the future.
Pro Palestine movements throughout the world especially in the Muslim world and even in the Western hemisphere have created a growing moral and diplomatic conundrum for the West in balancing the need for ensuring its leadership in the Muslim world and the Global South is not further eroded, and to safeguard the bulwark of freedom and the defence of like minded allies.
Regional shuttle diplomacy efforts have been intensive, but will need additional regional led support among regional peers and supporters, and Malaysia’s role remains strategic and vital.
Regional Responses and Roles
Hamas has representation and support in many Middle Eastern and Asian nations and Hamas leaders including Khaled Mishaal and Ismail Haniyeh, are based in Qatar.
Doha has also served as the intermediary between Israel and Hamas, providing the necessary openings and intermediary support for both sides. Qatar has negotiated the release of the two American hostages, and is working on getting more hostages released.
While Doha has been a vital ally of the US in the region, it has been caught in a quandary in balancing its needs and interests with its regional neighbours and the security assurances from the West. Qatar hosts the largest military installation of the United States in the Middle East, the Al-Udeid Air Base in serving as a hub for overseas American operations, especially in serving missions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
Qatar has been trying to increase its diplomatic clout as Saudi influence grows, and has been steadily mending ties with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
From enhancing its soft diplomacy through the World Cup to avoiding key regional confrontations with the hope of consistently striving for regional predominance, the Gulf state is prioritising a good working relationship with neighbours particularly Riyadh.
Its role in backing pro-democracy movements and rebels in Syria, Egypt and Libya after the 2011 Arab Spring had infuriated regional neighbours, and is now keen to emerge as a voice of trust and reason.
Washington now faces an acute dilemma in dealing with Doha once this conflict eases, in balancing with its strategic needs and long term interests in Israel as the region’s defender of US interests.
Turkey remains another host country for Hamas, and has been trying to play a key role in the conflict including working to get humanitarian aid to Gaza and allowing treatments in Turkish hospitals. Ankara has been trying to normalise ties with Tel Aviv since the 2010 flotilla incident, but the current bombardment in Gaza has forced Erdogan to take a different stance.
Riyadh also remains a key player in having the leverage and future strategic card in its dealing and potential resumption of normalization process with Israel, and thus, possesses greater chips in dealing and exerting greater strategic advantage in facing both Israel and the US in this crisis. For the US, Riyadh remains a key player both in checking Tehran and in economic and defence ties and as the stabilizing player in the region besides Israel. Riyadh faces another dilemma in balancing its long term interests of power dominance in the region with Israel in the equation, and in how it navigates its future strategic calculations with regional rival Tehran and ties with Beijing and Washington that will ensure its future returns in securing its ambitions, not further complicated with the crisis in its dealings with both Tel Aviv and Washington.
Asean’s Second Trap
The Asean-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit is a symbol of Asean trying to regain its relevance and influence, especially in providing credible support and capacity for the most pressing dilemmas and conflicts, where it has seen its credibility and relevance taking a big hit in the disjointed regional response to the Ukraine crisis.
While Asean has been tapped to seize the opening to salvage its relevance by working in unison with the wider Arab world and the UN to push for this, Malaysia is well poised to lead this together with Jakarta, by leveraging on Malaysia’s upcoming Asean chairmanship in 2025.
Asean has always been split in responding to major global events that have stoked different responses from members in accordance to different interest fault lines. Just like the Ukraine war and the importance of Russia and the push for the anti-West and rules based order, and the need for preservation of ties with Beijing, different members have responded with widening gap and differences that suit their own larger national interests.
Collectively as a regional entity, Asean lacks the common policy framework that can cater for a holistic and full blown policy response that is seen as an outright condemnation or support for one party or the other. It remains ineffective in exerting credible influence at the wider scale.
Asean is compelled to thread a careful line on this, lest inviting risks to its future dealings with both the West and China, and remains to preserve the interests of its members and to safeguard its internal policy.
While some see Asean as the East led alternative or China dominated entity to the Western dominated EU in providing the alternative responses and as a check and balance to the Western system, the immediate impact as a potent geopolitical force in global power parity or in providing credible deterrence or solutions to global hard power crises remain stunted, and trapped by its internal divide and policy trap and a premature phase of global credence, with ever persistent Beijing shadow.
Entangled Symbiosis of Interests
Malaysia can aim for the winnable quick returns of common wants by all sides in de-escalating the violence, stopping indiscriminate attacks on civilians, providing safe passages and flow of humanitarian aid and getting and forming a regional and global commitment in preventing escalation of war and a wider conflict.
While Malaysia is gaining in geostrategic importance to Washington especially in the big power rivalry with Beijing, recent increased close ties with Beijing especially in key trade, technology and economic domains have diminished long term prospects of Western confidence and trust.
Any overtures of Washington to Malaysia’s pressure or demand probably will be in relation to other returns in the larger Indo Pacific ambition and the China factor, and will not likely to take into account Malaysia’s concerns alone but the wider concerns of the global community and for Washington’s intent to preserve the ties with the key Global South players in the competition with Beijing, as well as defending key allies and systems of freedom and democracy. The other equation that might be considered by the West will be to balance the need for Washington’s Middle East concerns and to prevent Beijing from capitalising on the void to increase its leadership there.
For now the common interests shared by both sides are the urgent need to prevent the crisis from spiralling into deeper vicious cycle and a wider regional conflict, and to urgently provide humanitarian aid, protection of civilians, calling for an end to civilian casualties and sufferings and a safe passage in collaboration with key regional players.
Israel still remains as Washington’s most vital ally in the Middle East not only for Washington’s objective of the protection of the democratic system but also in keeping Tehran in check. Tehran remains a key dilemma for the US and thus, Malaysia and Saudi’s card and leverage in this crisis and beyond remain vital.
The sentiments in Malaysia have been consistent,which are to stand up against the oppression of the Palestinians. With greater economic dependence on China and the transition away from Western dominated financial and economic system, Malaysia is in a new power shift to balance the needs of both sides but being challenged by conflicting demands.
Among the potential risks involved in the Western retaliations on Malaysia’s strong stance on the Palestine issue are the credibility of the policies and framework of the country’s principles on rules based order, sanctity of the rights of nations and also the impact on the support the nation has received in the domain of security support and counterterrorism support capacities.
This also includes possible economic and critical technology investment and transfer with risks of sanctions, as the US and the West are now facing threats to the rules based order and the principles of freedom and democracy.
However, any of the moves in creating costs for Malaysia for its stance are also limited in certain segments, as Malaysia is strategically needed for the West against the bigger overwhelming threat of China, in a matter of how the West prioritises its compartmentalization of long term interests and the bigger global power priority and parity.
Malaysia’s Stance on the Cause
Malaysia has been well known as among the most persistent and vocal leaders in championing the Palestinian cause, but it will need the unity and cohesion of the Arab world and a vast majority of the Global South in an integrated manner to call for the common and mutually acceptable urgencies for the protection of civilians and to end all violence and war crimes, and for the urgent creation of a safe corridor for humanitarian support and life protection for the victims.
Kuala Lumpur will get a more influential voice and role if Malaysia can tap into the cards and leverage to portray key leadership in the OIC and to reorient Asean’s role and relevance and to wisely assess and accommodate the changing Middle Eastern geopolitical shifts in exerting greater role and pressure for the push for cessation of violence and to prioritise the humanitarian aid and civilian protection.
Malaysia supports the Palestinian cause because of the entrenched principle for standing up against injustice and oppression, and the right of the Palestinian state and the people to have their rightful ownership of their land and rights. This cuts across the religious sphere alone, as an overwhelming Muslim and non-Muslim population is supportive of the Palestinian cause in the name of common humanitarian grounds and freedom and Malaysia’s legacy of standing up for the cause of the oppressed.
For any real impact on the conflict, it will need Malaysia’s diplomatic craft to exert more than diplomatic pressure alone.
It depends on how well Malaysia plays its card in utilising its position and influencing power in the Arab world and the broader Muslim world in integrating policy framework and in creating greater unity and cohesion that transcend internal boundaries of both Shia-Sunni divide and national rivalry that persist in the Middle East and in the Muslim world, including in Southeast Asia and South Asia.
This also includes using Malaysia’s current strategic ties in pushing for credible and more urgent flow of humanitarian aid and to get regional powers to push for the end of violence and targeting of civilians and in preventing the risks of a wider war.
This Middle Eastern flare up has raised overall global risks of a widened conflict and a new juncture of proxy battles that will create more sustained and integrated capitalization of power enhancement and power interests in other spillover impact. Protection of lives, cessation of violence, creation of peace and urgent de-escalation of the conflict remain the most important priority for all powers in preventing further deterioration of the crisis.