A Jalil Hamid, Muzli Mohd Zin and Ahmad Zaini Kamaruzzaman catch up with Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman on the forthcoming visit of Saudi Arabia King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud to Malaysia.
Q: Besides enhancing cooperation between both countries, what will be the topics of mutual concern and issues pertaining to bilateral relations that will be discussed during King Salman’s visit to Malaysia?
A:In addition to the many existing fields of cooperation between the two countries, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are also focusing on security cooperation, in particular following the threat posed by radical or extremist groups, including the Islamic State.
However, the fight against the radical and extremist groups does not end at destroying them, instead it also incorporates efforts to rehabilitate and de-radicalise them. This is in line with the United Nations Security Resolution 2178 that requires member countries to formulate a programme for returning terrorist fighters.
It is in this regard that we hope the forthcoming state visit by King Salman will pave the way for us to discuss with the Saudi counterpart on how we can blend the Malaysian rehabilitation module with Saudi Arabia’s programme.
The framework for such cooperation was also laid down by Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi when he visited the Mohamed Naif Centre for Counselling and Care (MNCC), a de-radicalising centre in Riyadh, as part of his official programme last year. Furthermore, a group of Malaysian senior government officials will be visiting Saudi Arabia next month to discuss the subject.
Obviously, we will also be looking at how best to move Malaysia-Saudi relations on an even higher footing. Trade and investment between the two countries is one of the primary topics that will be discussed, not only at the delegation meeting between both governments but also at every single opportunity that arises where this topic can be raised.
Another area that Malaysia will be looking at is in boosting the number of tourist arrivals from Saudi Arabia to Malaysia. Since tourism is fast becoming a number one earner for many countries in this region, it is in Malaysia’s interest to push itself forward as an attractive tourist destination and shopping haven.
Q: The Saudi government last month restored the haj quota for Malaysian pilgrims to 27,900 people this year compared with 22,230 previously. What will Malaysia do to convince the Saudi government to further increase the haj quota for Malaysia and why is this important?
A: Our leaders have been continuously engaging Saudi leaders, especially on haj and umrah matters, to ensure the welfare of Malaysian pilgrims is well taken care of. This also includes the haj quota. Every year, our prime minister writes to the Saudi king without fail, requesting for a bigger quota. However, it is the prerogative of the host to accept or reject our request.
We will take the opportunity afforded by this visit of King Salman to again push our case for a higher haj quota.
After all, the quota of 27,900 was set when Malaysia’s population was barely 28 million. We are now a nation of more than 30 million people, so this will need to be taken into account.
As a government, we understand that the government of Saudi Arabia will take into account all relevant factors in considering our request, including the capability of the area to accommodate a higher number of people performing the haj.
I am confident, however, that when the opportunity presents itself, Malaysia will be very high up in the Saudi government’s consideration for a higher quota.
Q: The cost of performing the haj this year has increased to RM19,550 compared with RM18,890 last year. The cost has been increasing every year. The haj subsidy borne by Tabung Haji this year is expected to be RM200 million. Why is there a need to reduce the cost and what can be done to achieve it?
A:The cost of performing the haj has increased to RM19,550 and Tabung Haji will spend RM200 million to subsidise Malaysian pilgrims this year compared with RM160 million last year. The subsidy is absorbed by the government to ensure that the cost of performing the haj by Malaysian Muslims remains at RM9,980.
The increase in the cost of performing the haj is inevitable as it is based on supply and demand, as well as the general increase in the cost of providing services in Saudi Arabia.
One of the main factors for the increase in the cost is pilgrims’ accommodation in Mecca and Medina. The higher demand for accommodations within the vicinity of the two Holy Mosques has increased the price tremendously.
Nonetheless, Tabung Haji is committed to its mission to provide a complete range of services to enable pilgrims perform their haj smoothly, which includes comfortable and affordable accommodations within the vicinity of the two Holy Mosques.
The haj subsidy borne by Tabung Haji is part of the government’s commitment to care for the rakyat and ease their financial burden. To manage the increasing cost of accommodation, Malaysia is seeking the agreement to long lease (100 years) vacant land to develop an integrated accommodation complex. The vacant land will be located within the 1km radius of the Holy Mosque in Mecca and within the Markaziah zone in Medina.
This effort will enable us to house our pilgrims and provide an integrated and full range of services to the pilgrims. More importantly it will help Tabung Haji manage the fluctuation of accommodation cost in the long term.
We hope that the Saudi government will consider this initiative as it will stabilise the haj costs and risk factors involved, and enhance the wellbeing of the pilgrims through better management and coordination during their stay in Mecca and Madinah.
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