Malaysia and the Muslim Middle East Political and Economic Connections

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Michael B. Bishku


Michael B. Bishku is professor of history at Augusta University. He can be reached at mbishku@augusta​.­edu.In its early years of independence, Malaysia faced a communist insurgency and was in a state of conflict with Indonesia, its larger neighbor, and for security purposes it sought close ties with the Commonwealth. It eventually repaired relations with Indonesia and joined the Non-­Aligned Movement in 1970, the same year that its first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, became the first secretary-­general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Although Sunni Muslim Malays in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had looked toward the Ottoman Empire for support as Great Britain colonized the area, independent Malaysia’s connections with the Middle East were initially through pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia and students studying religion at al-­Azhar in Egypt. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed strengthened ties to the Middle East during the 1980s, becoming dependent on financial assistance from Saudi Arabia until Malaysia industrialized. Since then, Malaysians have invested in Middle Eastern countries. Domestically, Muslim Malays have dominated the politics of the country, and since the 1969 parliamentary elections authorities have placed greater emphasis on Islamic values while also keeping a close watch on Muslim citizens who have veered from the practice of “moderate Sunni orthodoxy.” Through a balanced approach, Malaysia, a middle power, has been able to avoid getting involved in Middle Eastern disputes, while generally benefiting from economic investments from countries in that region. It has also been a strong supporter of the Palestinians’ right of self-­determination and has consistently refused to establish relations with Israel. Using government documents and newspaper articles, this article addresses that subject by examining Malaysia’s interregional connections with middle powers in the Middle East, particularly Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

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