Rahman Dahlan: KL-Riyadh can step up trade ties


IN THE second part of an interview on TV3’s ‘Soal Jawab’, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Abdul Rahman Dahlan tells of how he believes stronger ties between Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur can open up new opportunities

Question: That (Petronas-Saudi Aramco deal) is the biggest memorandum of understanding (MoU). How about the seven other MoUs worth RM9.74 billion, which mark a huge commitment in the history of Riyadh-Kuala Lumpur ties?

Answer: One of the MoUs is between our Halal Industry Development Corporation and their AJ Pharma Holdings. We want to develop a halal vaccine, which is an area that could forge more collaborations in the future. Saudi Aramco is said to be worth US$5 trillion to US$10 trillion (RM22.3 trillion to RM44.5 trillion) — the biggest company in the world, so to speak.

During my trip to Riyadh for the Saudi Aramco deal, I felt a sense of pride when I saw young Malay professionals from Petronas involved in the negotiations and defending Petronas’s position. I am proud of them. Their depth of knowledge is on a par with their counterparts from Aramco.

Prasarana is bidding to build and operate Metro (a public transportation project) lines in Riyadh or Mecca. Riyadh is a big metropolitan and I am sure with Prasarana’s expertise and experience, it can secure one of the Metro’s components, God-willing.

The MoUs covered other segments such as education and software solutions. For education, we were given 100 scholarships in Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, which will be increased in the future. Another one is the Islamic military counter-terrorism centre.

When I was in Riyadh with Datuk Seri Hishammuddin (Hussein), Datuk Seri Anifah (Aman), Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, Datuk Seri Jamil Khir (Baharom) and the prime minister himself, it was a significant experience for cabinet members because for the first time, these ministers joined hands in the spirit of cooperation.

When Hishammuddin brought me to a military centre for a briefing, for the first time in history as far as I know, Saudi military established an anti-terrorism unit called the Islamic Military Counter-terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). A general briefed us and talked about holistic and deliberate solutions, not using violence or militant approaches, to tell terrorists not to hijack Islam, and that they will “look for you (terrorists) in every nook and cranny”.

This is something historic because the words “Islamic” and “military” have never been combined when naming an organisation. They also used an educational approach which focused on moderation in Islam. This is why they are fond of Malaysia, because of the wasatiyyah approach that we adopted. They also had a module to reach out to the younger generation — using social media to curb extremism.

At one point, they expressed their desire to help out with issues surrounding minority Muslims in the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. I can see from their (IMCTC) movements that they wanted a bigger role in taking back Islam from terrorists. This is fitting as Saudi Arabia is a country with wealth and influence, and it should be in the frontline of this battle.

Q: Can you explain the role of our armed forces in IMCTC? Are they going to be involved in intelligence or combat?

A: I will leave it to the defence minister and the prime minister on whether we will contribute foot soldiers or not. However, what we had discussed is that we want to work together with their armed forces in intelligence and information exchange as we have a good track record in dealing with terrorism issues in this region.

Alhamdulillah. Saudi Arabia sees us as a nation that succeeds in dealing with extremism. At the same time, however, we have not expressed commitment in putting our men in the coalition to be involved in wars or militant operations. We did discuss Saudi Arabia’s assets that it no longer uses — something that we could collaborate on. We offered to share our know-hows in operating submarines. Basically, it’s an equal give-and-take between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.

Q: Can you elaborate on the role of the King Salman Centre for International Peace?

A: I will have to give credit to Hishammuddin, who, together with the Saudi defence minister, discussed and decided to establish this centre, which is aimed at promoting King Salman’s thoughts which include wasatiyyah and moderation.

Many have said that this is Saudi Arabia’s attempt at exporting its religious ideology but this is not true at all. In fact, we were informed that it would not export or promote its school of Islam (sect) to the 30 countries that would work together. It made this clear that this is an attempt to curb terrorism. With Saudi Arabia’s wealth and power, I believe we will have a better shot at dealing with militant extremism.

Q: Malaysia has expressed interest in signing a free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Any positive developments regarding this?

A: This is an area that is not so encouraging. We have an emotional attachment to Saudi Arabia because of religious factor, including haj. However, in terms of trade, there is still room for improvement. Our annual trade relations are worth RM14 billion, which is not much.

The halal industry is a US$2-trillion business globally. As two esteemed countries in the Muslim world, why can’t we collaborate more? Islamic finance is worth US$2.3 trillion. This is an area in which we can improve our bilateral ties.

Tourism and information technology are two areas we can collaborate on. RM14 billion is a meagre sum, but with a better understanding between the governments, especially among our ministers, more can be done.

When the Saudi delegation left Malaysia after their four-day visit, some of them called us to express their gratitude. Some had even apologised for not being able to drop by my office. This shows the extent of our warm friendship, which is leaving us with a positive impact.

Regarding Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, I had the chance to meet its deputy prince, who has been given the role to transform Saudi Arabia’s economy. Bear in mind, 90 per cent of their revenue are from oil and gas, and when (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) came to power in 2009, we were about 41 per cent dependent on oil and gas. After seven years of being the prime minister, this dependency went down to 14 per cent.

Many moves that the Saudi Arabian government had taken in recent times were made based on the Malaysian experience. For example, in rationalising subsidies, it had recently increased petrol prices by 50 per cent. They also recently launched a “Citizens Account” programme whereby cash is given to the poor — a project similar to our 1Malaysia People’s Aid (BR1M). They will introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST). These are moves we had implemented. Claiming that the GST is non-permissible (haram), which is what certain opposition leaders have done, is shallow thinking.

(NST File Pix) Malaysia is one of the top destinations for Arab tourists.

Q: During the four-day visit, were there any talks on how to boost Malaysia and Saudi Arabia’s participation in the halal industry? Can you share some of the agendas?

A: We cannot accept the fact that we are not spearheading the industry. Alhamdulillah for Halal Industry Development Corporation’s (HDC) collaboration with AJ Pharma Holdings.

However, it only focuses on vaccine. The collaboration must be expanded as vaccine is only one component.

The industry is worth US$2 trillion. Why can’t we manage with 10 to 20 per cent of the industry? This is the opportunity that we craved for.

I believe Mustapa, together with HDC, will follow through on the part of the MoUs that we have inked.

Q: Our agreements with China and Saudi Arabia are seen as a new direction for our country to actualise the National Transformation 2050 (TN50) plan as these two countries are in the process of transformation in various aspects. What is your take on this?

A: During my discussions with the deputy crown prince, I asked him why Saudi Arabia’s transformation programme is so short. 2030 is too soon.

He said his nation was in a hurry because it needed to transform its economy before it encountered a huge problem.

There are many opportunities that we can grab. For example, the modest clothing industry. Maybe (local celebrity) Neelofa could take advantage of this and go there as she has already made waves here. Other muslimah clothing businesses could also join in.

Both countries have a young population and the advent of social media can change geo-political landscapes, and we can learn from each other.

Q: First it was China, then Saudi Arabia. Next is India. This is an interesting development for our economy, don’t you think?

A: Yes. Najib, despite having been attacked from all directions, is a leader who has never lost focus. This is something that nobody can do.

When one is under pressure, it will become apparent on one’s expressions, demeanour and character.

However, Najib seems undeterred and focused. The East Coast Rail Line and High-Speed Rail projects are under way.

Our bilateral relations with China and Saudi Arabia have improved.

Even though we face many issues, we can never lose focus on our duty as the people’s choice to govern the country.

This is why there should be no economic sabotage because we need a strong government, as only a strong government can weather the issues that I have mentioned.

It is important to give an impression of political stability to the outside world as without it, we will face more challenges.