Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin was today (January 24) named as Malaysia’s new king after the surprise and unprecedented abdication of the incumbent monarch earlier this month.

The Conference of Rulers, a special gathering held between eight of the country’s hereditary sultans, decided after a brief one hour meeting that Abdullah, who was recently appointed sultan of Pahang state after replacing his elderly father, will hold the royal seat for the next five years.

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, but uniquely the throne rotates every five years between the hereditary sultans of nine Malaysian states, a tradition adopted after it gained independence from Britain in 1957.

Abdullah, who is British educated and a known keen polo player, is expected to be sworn in a lavish ceremony on January 31.

The change of thrones arose after former King Muhammad V unexpectedly abdicated earlier this month, the first Malaysian monarch to do so. He will remain the sultan of the northeastern state of Kelantan, despite stepping down from the national position.

His abdication reportedly stemmed from his relations with a former Russian beauty queen, who he is thought to have married in secret in Moscow in November while away from Malaysia for supposed medical reasons.

Now abdicated king of Malaysia, Sultan Muhammad V, arrives for a ceremonial guard of honor during the parliamentary opening session at Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur on March 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Now abdicated king of Malaysia, Sultan Muhammad V, views a ceremonial guard of honor, March 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Speculation lingers as to whether he voluntarily chose to step down or was pressured to do so by Malaysia’s other sultans who felt his marriage to a Russian model went against Islamic principles, since the king constitutionally serves the role as head of Islam, the country’s majority religion.

There are also suggestions that he clashed with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose swearing-in ceremony last year was temporarily delayed for several hours by Muhammad for reasons never made public.

Before today’s announcement, Sultan Abdullah was in pole position for the role.

Analysts presumed his rise since Pahang state was next in line to send its hereditary sultan to the national throne under the nation’s rotational monarchical system.

Still, there was some debate because Abdullah had only recently inherited the position from his father, which potentially could have seen Pahang state moved to the bottom of the rotational list.

Just days after Muhammad V’s abdication, and likely in anticipation of his nomination, Abdullah was named as Pahang state’s new sultan, replacing his elderly and reportedly ailing father.

Abdullah, 59, is likely to be popular among Malaysia’s young population. He is known as a sports fanatic, serving as the director of a number of Malaysian sporting bodies including the Football Association of Malaysia, and is a member of FIFA, football’s world governing body.

New Malaysian King Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin in a file photo. Photo: Facebook

His relative youth, given most of the other sultans are in their 60s or 70s, is also likely to chime with the government, which despite Mahathir’s advanced age – he is 93 – has made efforts to promote young talent through its ranks.

The king, who is referred to as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or “He Who Is Made Lord”, serves a largely symbolic role in Malaysia, including as the nominal commander-in-chief of the military.

Although responsible for making ministerial appointments and signing-off on legislation, as well as granting royal pardons, the position is ultimately subordinate to the government’s wishes. Taxpayers foot the bill for the monarch’s US$3.3 million annual salary and expenses.

The monarchy is generally popular in Malaysia, particularly in the rural Malay heartland, though is tends to be looked upon less favorably in urban areas. It has also been rocked by major scandals in recent years, not least the previous king’s alleged liaisons with a Russian model.

In the 1980s, King Mahmood Iskandar of Johor was accused of beating to death a golf caddy who had laughed at his swing, though royal immunity at the time meant he escaped prosecution.

Mahathir, then prime minister, moved to lift that immunity after the incident, putting him on a collision course with a institution that dates back to the 15th century. Criticism of the king is strictly forbidden under local laws.

Arguably the most important role of the monarch is as the formal Head of Islam, the multi-ethnic country’s main religion. He appoints the Islamic Affairs Council and constitutionally serves as protector of the faith of the country’s estimated 20 million Muslims.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech outside Kuala Lumpur on January 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech outside Kuala Lumpur on January 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

That’s an important political role, particularly in the current race-charged environment. From its independence until last year, Malaysia was governed by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a Malay Muslim centric party that ruled as part of the Barisan Nasional coalition.

The country’s politics has traditionally split between parties that appealed almost exclusively to one or another of Malaysia’s three main ethnicities: Malays, Chinese and Indians.

Last year’s surprise election victory of the Harapan coalition, which includes a number of multi-ethnic parties, seemingly marked a turning point in Malaysia’s identitarian politics.

But the ruling coalition, known as the “Pact of Hope,” only won the backing of 30% of Malay Muslim voters, despite Mahathir’s Malaysian United Indigenous Party, a member of the ruling coalition, appealing heavily to the constituency.

In order to gain more support from this section of the population, the Harapan coalition government must appeal to the Malay majority, and forming a healthy relationship with the new king, as protector of the Islamic faith, is one possible way in this direction.

Abdullah’s roots in Pahang state also matter. The Harapan coalition failed to win its state government in local elections last year, one of the few state governments that the Barisan Nasional retained, though only with a slender majority.