Shockwaves hit Southeast Asia on January 26th when news emerged that Malaysia's Prime Minister, Najib Razak, was cleared of corruption charges, with the country's Attorney General confirming that the transfer of $681 million to Najib's personal bank account was a donation from the Saudi royal family. AG Mohamed Apandi Ali also added that the funds were returned to the Saudi family, with the exception of $61 million, used during the 2013 election campaign.
Najib, who was initially accused of misappropriating funds from the nation's 1MBD sovereign development fund, which he chairs, has denied any wrongdoing from the onset, insisting that the scandal was an organized political ploy by the opposition to unseat him. Despite the welcoming development of the closure of a corruption investigation that has rocked the country for the past year, political pundits within Malaysia continue to have their doubts, with Malaysia's anti-corruption body (MACC) calling for a review of the AG's decision and the reason behind the transfer of funds. Indeed, at first glace, Malaysia does not appear to be the first choice to quality for Saudi aid. However, speaking with the BBC, a close confidant of the Saudi royal family claimed that the donation was given ahead of Malaysia's 2013 elections to help Prime Minister Najib and his coalition to beat the opposition alliance. Partially composed of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), whose original members were influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition coalition and its potential victory appeared a significant enough threat to Saudi Arabia, which has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
In fact, Saudi Arabia has historically chosen to delve into the security and economic affairs of nations with a shared Sunni Muslim demographic, like Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Egypt, providing funds to the latter to encourage the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. In Malaysia's case, Saudi Arabia became an economic partner back in the 1970s under the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But what started off as a predominately economic partnership, quickly evolved into a security based relationship dating back to 2013 after the two nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at cooperation on counterterrorism issues and transnational criminal activity. Today, as the Southeast Asian region has come increasingly under threat from Islamic terrorism, this relationship has gained increased in value. Following the January 2016 attacks in Jakarta, Malaysia's branch of ISIS, known as Katibah Nusantara (Malay Archipelago Combat Unit), was quick to release a damning video denouncing the government's crackdown on Islamic extremism, announcing that they "will never bow down to the democratic system of governance as we will only follow Allah's rules". The government estimates that so far 150 Malaysian citizens have been arrested for spurring terrorist activities at home and inciting violence, with an additional 100 Malay's having gone to Syria and Iraq to fight with the Islamic State.
For his part, Prime Minister Najib has been a strong proponent of a moderate Islam and has taken an active stance against hardline Islamist opponents, while also actively developing a strategy against violent extremism that has earned him a "very strong relationship" with the US on counterterrorism issues in the region. During a bilateral meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Najib, the two leaders agreed to set up the Regional Digital Counter-Messaging Communications Center (RDC3) with the aim of "coordinating and driving counter-ISIL messaging activity in the region" and weakening the narrative and appeal of the group. In return for cooperation on programs such as "Preventing and Combatting Serious Crime (PCSC)", largely a forum for sharing information such as biometric and DNA data, the United States has promised to add Malaysia to the Visa Waiver Program, allowing Malay's to travel to the United States without a visa for under 3 months.
While some may continue to question the details of Saudi's donation to Prime Minister Najib back in 2013, what has become evermore clear is that Malaysia now stands at the forefront of the fight against Islamic terrorism in a region that today emerges as a new battleground against ISIS' growing international network. In this regard, it comes as no surprise that Riyadh will continue to play a strong role in supporting Malaysia's vision of a moderate Islam, while the latter appears set to become a leading regional force in the fight against ISIS.