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Charting Anwar Ibrahim’s Diplomatic Course: A Review of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East After a Year

31 Jan 2024

Charting Anwar Ibrahim’s Diplomatic Course: A Review of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East After a Year

31 Jan 2024


Malaysia’s ruling coalition, led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, completed its first year in office by the end of 2023. The coalition came into being following a hung parliament in the aftermath of the 15th general elections, which saw the Malaysian monarch intervene, facilitating negotiations. This resulted in the formation of a coalition involving the Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance, led by Anwar Ibrahim, and their erstwhile political rivals, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO)-led Barisan National (BN) alliance.

In this context, discussions within academic and media circles have predominantly focused on internal issues such as the pursuit of economic and political stability,[1] a notable 18% decline in Anwar Ibrahim’s approval rating, which was attributed to economic issues, political instability, and poor administration,[2]  the emergence of ethnoreligious populism in the nation,[3] and a reshuffling of the cabinet that impacted two ministerial portfolios integral to external affairs, i.e., the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense.[4] Notably absent in these discussions is a comprehensive assessment of the foreign policy employed by the Anwar Ibrahim administration, specifically concerning engagements with the Middle East region. While it is imperative to acknowledge that Malaysian foreign policy under PM Anwar is not mutually exclusive from domestic issues in the country, it still merits a thorough analysis from a geopolitical standpoint.

Under Anwar, Malaysia has crafted its Middle East policy, navigating the intricate interplay of political, economic, and ideological factors. The country has maintained a delicate balance between political and economic pragmatism and the infusion of religious discourse, reflecting a nuanced approach associated with the prevailing ethnoreligious populism.

Anwar Ibrahim’s religiously oriented diplomacy

Within the framework of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s political trajectory, which traces his evolution from leading the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (ABIM), a prominent student-led religious organization inspired by the ideological and structural principles of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, he ascended to prominence as a significant figure in Islamist politics in Malaysia. During this period, Anwar openly articulated both support and admiration for the 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.[5] This trajectory marks a notable transition to his role as the founder of the multicultural People’s Justice Party (PKR). In this capacity, Anwar went on to advocate for a moderate form of Islam.[6] However, it is noteworthy that Islamic perspectives have consistently constituted an integral component of his political discourse. This religious orientation extends notably to his approach to foreign policy, particularly in matters pertaining to the Arab and Muslim world.

Hence, it comes as no surprise that developing robust ties with the Middle East, spanning diverse ideological and political blocs within the region, constitutes a focal point of Anwar’s foreign policy paradigm. Explicitly voicing his open admiration for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Anwar has commended Ankara’s diplomatic adeptness in balancing relations among global powers, stating, “The region should learn diplomatic skills from President Erdogan.”[7]

Since assuming the role of prime minister, Anwar has purposefully postured himself as a Muslim statesman, having adopted an assertive stance on ‘Muslim issues’ globally, notably the Palestinian cause. This became particularly prominent following the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, during which he defended the Malaysian government’s relations with Hamas, asserting that despite Western officials urging Malaysia to condemn Hamas in meetings, the government did not agree with the West’s “pressuring attitude.”[8] Subsequently, Anwar had an official phone call with Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the Hamas political bureau to “express Malaysia’s unwavering support for the Palestinian people.”[9]

This inclination became immediately evident upon his confirmation as prime minister, as highlighted in well-publicized interactions with President Erdogan of Turkey, where he conducted a press conference with the phone speaker on for the entire press corps to hear.[10] Similarly, Anwar spoke with Haniyeh through a brief video conference, parts of which were disseminated online.[11]

An illustration of Anwar’s religiously oriented diplomacy is discernible in the visual discourse of the numerous overseas visits he has undertaken in his capacity as head of government. During these working trips, he consistently engaged with Muslim minority populations, undertaking well-publicized visits and occasionally delivering sermons in mosques abroad. Noteworthy examples include visits to fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, such as Cambodia, where he attended a Ramadan Iftar dinner with the local Muslim community. During this event, he witnessed the symbolic presentation of 1,500 copies of the Quran translation in Khmer and English from Malaysia to Cambodia.[12]

Likewise, during his working visit to China, Anwar, who, prior to assuming the office, had been a critic of China’s handling of its Uyghur Muslim minority,[13] convened a meeting with members of the Muslim community in Beijing. This interaction garnered substantial coverage in the Malaysian media, being portrayed as a diplomatic accomplishment wherein his pre-tenure views did not negatively impact his working relationship with China. Concurrently, political commentators characterized this interaction as a demonstration of “indirectly expressed solidarity with the” Uyghurs.[14]

In his maiden working visit to the United States, to attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Anwar visited the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, where he delivered the sermon for the Friday prayers, and led the Shahada (Islamic declaration of faith) of a Muslim convert.[15] In his subsequent visit to the U.S. to participate in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in San Francisco, Anwar visited the Islamic Center of the city. During this visit, he convened a meeting with technology experts and businessmen representing the Muslim community. Beyond deliberations on investment prospects in Malaysia, Anwar, in a post on Facebook, articulated, “We also discussed the question of Muslims in the U.S. as well as the situation affecting Palestinians.[16] These examples underscore the consistent integration of religious dimensions into his diplomatic engagements on the global stage.

Within the span of one year of Anwar’s Middle East diplomacy, notable advancements included the reopening of the Malaysian Embassy in Iraq. The then Malaysian Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir characterized this as “the beginning for Malaysia to play a role as a proactive country in international relations, especially in West Asia, in addition to the active diplomacy mission founded by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim to enable Malaysia to return to the international scene in facing and dealing with global issues.”[17]

Another important facet of the diplomatic outreach by the current Malaysian administration involved engagements with Iran. This included the deployment of the Malaysian foreign minister on a working visit to Iran, marking the first such visit in seven years.[18] The extended hiatus in diplomatic visits to Iran by Malaysian foreign ministers can be attributed to regional conflicts in the Middle East involving Iran. Malaysia, cautious of jeopardizing relationships with Iran’s adversaries in these conflicts, had exercised prudence in its diplomatic engagements. During the visit, both countries committed to enhancing cooperation across various domains. While no specific roadmap or Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was disclosed, this collaborative effort was seen as supportive of Iran’s quest to regain international legitimacy amid the Mahasa Amini protests and economic challenges.[19] Subsequently, two bilateral meetings with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took place, initially on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York,[20] followed by another meeting during the joint Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh.[21]

Given Anwar’s historical admiration for the Iranian Revolution, a close examination of any future working visit by the Malaysian prime minister to Iran, as announced for the future, would provide valuable insights into his country’s strategic approach to leveraging the potential of bilateral relations. This scrutiny becomes especially pertinent against the backdrop of dynamic regional and global developments.

Beyond the religious symbolism evident in Anwar’s diplomacy, a noteworthy dimension that correlates to this approach is the current domestic political dynamics in Malaysia, against the backdrop of escalating ethnoreligious populism within the country, a phenomenon that has garnered considerable attention in both international media and scholarly discourse.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Malaysian affiliate, the Party Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS), which has secured power in four states, is a significant development in the complex interplay between Malaysian domestic politics and foreign policy dynamics concerning the Muslim world. Various instances, such as the decision by the previous PH government to withdraw its planned ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) in response to protests by Islamist groups,[22] PAS engagements with Taliban officials,[23] and the Palestinian cause, particularly after the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict, have become integral components of the political discourse within the Islamist opposition. This discourse serves as a means to mobilize public sentiment, framing the current ruling government as “anti-Islam.[24]

In response to this political context, Anwar is compelled to adopt a more assertive stance on transnational issues concerning the Muslim world. This is aimed at fortifying his religious credentials with the domestic audience. A notable illustration of this strategic approach is the organization and address of a pro-Palestinian rally by his ruling coalition, marked by impassioned speeches.[25]

Focus on the Gulf countries

It is imperative to acknowledge that, concurrent with the aforementioned approach of religiously oriented diplomacy, there exists a deliberate strategy grounded in realpolitik to avoid alignment with or categorization within a specific political or ideological bloc in the Middle East. Despite his prolonged affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no evidence to suggest that Prime Minister Anwar has encountered substantial challenges with influential regional states within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Anwar’s deliberate positioning as a global Muslim statesman does not inhibit his outreach to key regional powers in the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This strategic engagement with the GCC aligns directly with the Malaysian prime minister’s articulated objective of enhancing foreign investments in the country and strengthening trade links and overseas exports, integral components of his Madani Economy blueprint prominently featured in his electoral campaigns.[26] This strategy of robust engagement with the GCC became evident with the Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry, Tengku Zafrul’s visit to the UAE shortly after assuming office. During this visit, Petronas, Malaysia’s state-owned oil and gas company, entered into a significant agreement with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. The agreement pertained to the exploration and assessment of Abu Dhabi’s inaugural onshore unconventional oil block.[27]

The consistent enhancement of ties with the UAE has been a recurring aspect of Anwar’s administration, with both nations fostering collaboration across various sectors, particularly in the economic domain. During his first visit to the UAE, Prime Minister Anwar engaged in numerous meetings with representatives from the public and private sectors to discuss potential investments in Malaysia. A noteworthy development from these interactions was the signing of an agreement wherein Abu Dhabi committed to investing approximately $8 billion in renewable energy projects in Malaysia.[28] Anwar highlighted this investment in his political rallies prior to the visit, terming it as a “surprise.”[29]

From the Emirati perspective, the rationale behind their investments is to assume a proactive role in capitalizing on opportunities in post-pandemic Malaysia. Establishing cordial relations with the GCC member states is deemed essential for Anwar’s economic objectives, which include attracting foreign investments and enhancing export initiatives. Concurrently, the Emirati investments are oriented toward commercially viable ventures.

As Malaysia and the UAE formally embark on negotiations for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), positioning Malaysia among a select group of countries having such an agreement with the UAE, this is poised to introduce reforms in customs procedures, lower tariffs, and broaden market access.[30] Notably, the UAE presently holds a significant status as one of Malaysia’s foremost trading partners within the Middle East region, with annual non-oil bilateral trade surpassing $2 billion.[31]

Beyond economic collaboration, the partnership between Malaysia and the UAE has expanded into various other domains. A recent notable development in their growing defense relationship was the joint military exercise named “Desert Tiger 6”, which saw the attendance of the UAE President, H.H. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the then Malaysian King, Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmed.[32] Furthermore, collaboration in the realms of research and academia is exemplified by the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Chair at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.[33]

Consolidating Malaysia’s long-standing cordial relations with Saudi Arabia has been identified as a significant aspect of Anwar’s Middle East policy. In his capacity as Prime Minister, Anwar opted for Saudi Arabia as the maiden destination for an official working visit within the Middle East region, making three such visits to the Kingdom within his first year in office. The salience of this policy is underscored by the fact that Malaysia-Saudi Arabia relations endured a rare period of strain lasting two years under the preceding PH government during the second term of the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamed.

Under Mahathir’s administration, there was a notable departure from established norms guiding Malaysia’s Middle East policy. This included his attempt to forge a parallel Islamic bloc with the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).[34] Furthermore, he aggressively opposed the U.S. sanctions on Iran,[35] and opted to close the Saudi-backed counterterrorism center in Malaysia, the King Salman Center of International Peace.[36] While Anwar did not hold a cabinet position during this period, his influential role in government formation in anticipation of a royal pardon in order to take over as PM positioned him strategically.

Anwar’s strategy to distance himself from Mahathir’s legacy assumes significance. It reflects a deliberate effort to bring a novel perspective to Malaysia-Saudi Arabia relations, transcending the historical warmth associated with previous UMNO-led administrations that governed Malaysia for over half a decade until 2018. In the course of Anwar’s maiden visit to Saudi Arabia, he engaged in substantive discussions with both the Secretaries-General of the OIC and the Muslim World League (MWL). Additionally, Anwar held a series of business meetings involving representatives from both the public and private sectors in Saudi Arabia, and notably, during a press conference, he emphasized his receptivity to the reinitiation of the King Salman Center of International Peace in Malaysia.[37]

During Anwar’s second and third visits to Saudi Arabia, the first being to participate in the inaugural GCC-ASEAN summit and the subsequent attendance at the extraordinary joint Arab-Islamic Summit in response to the Israeli-Hamas conflict, his summit addresses and interactions with the local media in Saudi Arabia demonstrated a highly appreciative and supportive stance regarding the Kingdom’s role and significance in the region.[38]

In his address at the GCC-ASEAN summit, where Malaysia assumed the role of the ASEAN country coordinator, Anwar, lauded Saudi Arabia’s role in the region and proposed the establishment of a GCC-ASEAN Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. Following the summit, Anwar engaged in a series of business meetings, notably with Aramco’s President, Amin H. Nasser,[39] and the Governor of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan.[40]

After the conclusion of the GCC-ASEAN summit, Anwar initiated a bilateral visit, marking his first-ever face-to-face meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The meeting resulted in the issuance of an extensive joint statement committing to enhancing bilateral relations across multiple domains such as trade, investments, cultural exchange, security, and renewable energy.[41]

Likewise, in his address to the Joint Arab-Islamic Summit, Anwar praised Saudi Arabia for leading diplomatic efforts to unite Arab and Islamic countries in support of the Palestinian cause and voiced support for the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative aimed at finding a comprehensive solution to the conflict.[42]

As the GCC-ASEAN summit is scheduled to convene biennially, Malaysia has been designated as the host for the upcoming summit in 2025.[43] This announcement underscores Malaysia’s elevated standing in the geopolitical landscape, particularly due to its multifaceted relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These ties extend beyond conventional intra-regional economic collaboration, positioning Kuala Lumpur as a crucial intermediary between the GCC and ASEAN, which further underscores the need for strong and stable bilateral relations between Malaysia and GCC member states.


The first year of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration in Malaysia can be characterized as a nuanced and multifaceted approach to foreign policy, particularly in engagements with the Middle East. Anwar’s adept balancing act between political, economic pragmatism, and religious considerations has been a defining feature, reflecting his evolution from a figure in Islamist politics to a more moderate stance. This approach, while resonating with certain sections of his domestic audience and addressing the rise of ethnoreligious populism, also poses challenges in terms of presenting a pragmatic image to the international community.

Recent developments, such as Malaysia’s interactions with Hamas after the Israeli-Hamas conflict, have put the nation under the global spotlight.[44] As Malaysia prepares to host the GCC-ASEAN summit in 2025, Anwar faces the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance amid geopolitical complexities. The economic pursuits with Saudi Arabia and the UAE become crucial not only for Malaysia’s economic growth but also for Anwar’s political standing, given the decline in approval ratings attributed to economic concerns arising from the devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit, which reached a 25-year low against the US dollar, and a notable downturn of 12% in overseas exports compared to the preceding year.[45]

In the longer run, Anwar’s foreign policy may face dilemmas, especially in the Middle East, where the balancing act between ideological considerations and economic pragmatism may become increasingly challenging. The need for adjustments in his Muslim statesman image to align with domestic and international expectations will be imperative.

As Malaysia positions itself as a pivotal intermediary between the GCC and ASEAN, Anwar’s foreign policy choices will likely shape the nation’s geopolitical standing. The trajectory of Malaysia’s foreign policy under Anwar remains a dynamic and evolving aspect, influenced by both domestic considerations and global geopolitical shifts. 


[1] Ariel Tan, “The Anwar govt a year on: Stability restored but major challenges remain,” The Straits Times, November 24, 2023,

[2] Azril Annuar, “Malaysian PM Anwar’s approval drops to 50 per cent amid economic concerns: Survey,” The Straits Times, November 23, 2023,

[3] Derrick A Paulo, “Malaysia’s ‘green wave’: A threat to the country’s politics and religious restraint?,” Channel News Asia, June 10, 2023,

[4] “Cabinet Reshuffle Done to Meet Current Demands, Situation-PM Anwar,” Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, December 12, 2023, 

[5] Farish A. Noor, The Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2013: Islamism in a Mottled Nation (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014): p. 117.

[6] “Anwar Ibrahim Calls for Empathy in Muslim Societies,” The Hindu, January 11, 2019,

[7] Riyaz Ul Khaliq, “Anwar Ibrahim advocates ‘neutral’ Malaysia amid great power rivalry in Asia-Pacific,” Anadolu Agency, July 27, 2022,

[8] “Malaysia’s Anwar rejects West’s ‘pressuring attitude’ to condemn Hamas,” Al Jazeera English, October 16, 2023,

[9] Imran Hilmy, “Anwar reiterates unwavering support for Palestinian people in call with Hamas political bureau chief,” The Star, October 17, 2023,

[10] Dania Nabilla, “Turkey president congratulates Anwar during press conference,” New Straits Times, November 25, 2022,

[11] Anwar Ibrahim, Twitter Post, November 27, 2022,

[12] Salawaty Supardi, “Anwar lauds Hun Sen’s respect for Muslim minority in Cambodia,” Bernama, March 27, 2023,

[13] Daniel Ten Kate &  Sophie Kamaruddin, “Anwar ‘Appalled’ by Suu Kyi, Criticizes China’s Muslim Camps,” Bloomberg, September 12, 2018,

[14] Dineskumar Ragu ,“ Smart of Anwar to meet with Muslim business community in China, says KJ,” Free Malaysia Today, April 06, 2023,

[15] Ahmad Zaini Kamaruzzaman,“ Anwar leads Andrew in taking the shahada, embracing Islam in New York,” New Straits Times, September 23, 2023,

[16] “Muslim businessmen, technology experts in San Francisco keen to invest in Malaysia,”Selangor Journal, November 18, 2023,

[17] Mohd Nasaruddin Parzi,“ Malaysian companies embark on Iraq’s reconstruction projects, strengthening bilateral ties,” New Straits Times, August 26, 2023,

[18] Riyaz Ul Khaliq, “Top Malaysian diplomat in Iran to explore new areas of cooperation,” Anadolu Agency, August 21, 2023,

[19] “Navigating Complex Waters: Analyzing Malaysia-Iran Relations Amid Domestic and Regional Dynamics,” Rasanah International Institute for Iranian Studies, October 25, 2023,

[20] “Malaysia to strengthen ties with Iran, says Anwar,” The Star, September 21, 2023,

[21] “M’sia and Iran prepared to enhance ties, says Anwar,” The Star, November 12, 2023, 

[22] “PAS issues letter, instructs ‘maximum’ turnout at anti-Icerd rally,” Malaysiakini, December 2, 2018,

[23] Ray Sherman and Suganya Lingan, “Analysts: Malaysia Must Clarify Whether Envoy’s ‘Promise’ to Taliban Had Govt OK,” Benar News , February 22, 2022,

[24] Danial Azhar, “Prove we’re anti-Islam, Anwar tells critics of unity govt,” Free Malaysia Today, July 07, 2023,

[25] Amy Chew, “For Malaysia’s Anwar, Israel-Hamas war is both personal and political,” Nikkei Asia, November 1, 2023, 

[26] “Madani Economy: What Does it Mean for Your Business?,” The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking

Corporation (HSBC), September 15, 2023,

[27] “ADNOC, Petronas sign Abu Dhabi unconventional oil resources deal,”Reuters, December 6, 2022,

[28] Nor Arlene Tan, “Malaysia looks to UAE for help in energy transition efforts,” Arab News, October 6, 2023,

[29] Teh Athira Yusof, “Surprise announcement for Pahang soon, says Anwar,” The Star, October 3, 2023,

[30] “UAE and Malaysia discuss strengthening economic and trade ties,” The Sun, September 29, 2023,

[31] “UAE and Malaysia discuss strengthening economic and trade ties,” United Arab Emirates Ministry Of Economy, September 28, 2023,

[32] “UAE-Malaysia defence cooperation consolidates pillars of security and stability,”The Print, May 24, 2023,

[33] “Sheikh Zayed Chair launched in Kuala Lumpur to foster collaboration,” Emirates News Agency-WAM, May 24, 2023,

[34] Julia Roknifard, “At Malaysia’s KL Summit, the Muslim world’s most pressing concerns got no mention,” South China Morning Post, December 24, 2019,

[35] “Malaysia does not support US sanctions on Iran which ‘violate international law’, PM says,The New Arab, December 15, 2019,

[36] “Pakatan Harapan Shuts Down Saudi-Backed Anti-Terrorism Centre, PM says,  Malaysia Today, August 7, 2018,

[37] “We’re ready to revive King Salman Centre for International Peace, says PM,Free Malaysia Today, March 25, 2023,

[38] Noor Nugali, “When Saudi Arabia takes the lead on Palestine, the ‘impact is powerful,’ Malaysia PM tells Arab News,Arab News, October 21, 2023,

[39] Saudi Aramco Committed to Expanding Facilities at Pengerang-PM Anwar,” Prime Minister’s Office of Malaysia, October 21, 2023,

[40] “Saudi Aramco komited perluas fasiliti di Pengerang – PM,” Berita Harian, October 22, 2023, (Bahasa Melayu)

[41] “Joint Statement at Conclusion of Prime Minister of Malaysias Visit to the Kingdom Issued,” Saudi Press Agency, October 22, 2023,

[42] “Malaysian Prime Minister Commends Saudi Initiative to Hold Joint Arab Islamic Extraordinary Summit in Response to Gaza’s Exceptional Circumstances,” Saudi Press Agency, October 27, 2023,

[43] “Malaysia to host next ASEAN-GCC summit in 2025,” Malay Mail, October 20, 2023,

[44] “Israel-Gaza: Malaysia will maintain ties with Hamas says PM Anwar Ibrahim,” BBC News, November 8, 2023,

[45]Kok Leong Chan “Anwar’s Popularity Dives Before Anniversary as Malaysia’s Economy Weighs,” Bloomberg, November 22, 2023,

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