In the humdrum of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the turbulence that it has generated within India, a major geopolitical event involving the Islamic world appears to have been relegated to the back pages in our media. The event was the quasi Islamic summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, under the initiative of Malaysia and Turkey, which resulted in a rump summit minus Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Indonesia. It is important to analyse the reasons why the summit was organised and why it failed to inspire more countries to attend. In addition, why did the initial passionate interest displayed by Pakistan PM Imran Khan and his subsequent absence at the lineup in Malaysia receive such bad press in Pakistan.
The one impression of Pakistan that I have always persisted with has been a high regard for its senior diplomats; their ability to play Pakistan’s interests through thick and thin of military rule has been admirable. It is therefore surprising how Pakistan got led up the garden path to attempt moving outside the sphere of the Saudi-controlled coterie of Islamic nations. Imran Khan and quite obviously his controller in chief, Gen. Qamar Jawed Bajwa, probably felt it prudent to cement stronger relations with both Turkey and Malaysia, especially after both had baited India with their remarks about Kashmir. Taking this at face value and the fact that he had been entertained briefly by both Iran and Saudi Arabia as a supposed interlocutor between them, Imran Khan felt the necessity of seeking a higher diplomatic status for Pakistan by kowtowing to Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia. The issue throws up the larger question of unity within the Islamic world and efforts by some to be more
equal than others. The Pakistani media is questioning its government about the nation’s financial status, how it has been bailed out repeatedly by Saudi Arabia and the UAE and therefore the necessity of agreeing to a meeting at which Saudi Arabia was unlikely to be present. It has gone further question the legitimacy of pulling out of the summit once it accepted the invitation, thus projecting that its foreign policy was being decided under external pressure. President Erdogan went as far as to even state that Pakistan’s pullout was due to Saudi pressure. Imran Khan had last week rushed to Riyadh, almost as if he was summoned to explain why he was attending the summit. It is well known he had discussed the summit in New York with both Mr Mahathir and Mr Erdogan on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session and agreed to back it.
The quasi Islamic summit was actually an idea mooted by Mr Mahathir and Mr Erdogan presumably to discuss measures to overcome worldwide Islamophobia. It was the fifth such summit and not the first; being much more low-profile in earlier avatars. Besides the leaders of Turkey, Iran, Qatar and all other Islamic countries, 450 delegates from various Islamic countries were invited. The Indian action in Kashmir was on the agenda, a major temptation for Pakistan. Saudi Arabia was invited, but refused to attend. With Iran’s President Rouhani attending, Mr Mahathir may have hoped he could highlight Malaysia’s leadership role in the Islamic world by interlocuting between the political fountainheads of the two main sects in Islam — Shia and Sunni; and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman seems to have disappointed him. Mr Mahathir’s statements were seen as a bid to create an alternative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia heads. The Kuala Lumpur summit was seen as a subversive move by the latter’s rivals in the Islamic world. It continued to stress that the OIC was the only appropriate forum for promoting goals related to the resolution of the Islamic world's problems. It took action to thwart it by exerting political and economic pressure on Pakistan and Indonesia, which then prompted them not to attend; Imran Khan’s dash to Riyadh was under this coercion.
A couple of issues arise from the chain of events. First, the schisms which arose from the attempts to isolate Qatar have acquired greater traction. Second, the Shia-Sunni geopolitical divide seems to be diluting with the UAE moving a bit closer to Iran, and the Saudi-Iran standoff appears to be turning a bit more positive — are actually nothing more than smoke and mirrors in the world of strong competitiveness to acquire more geopolitical advantage in the Islamic world. The drone attack on the Saudi Aramco refinery is just too recent for it to be forgotten in a hurry. Third, Mr Erdogan’s efforts to highlight the low Islamic footprint in international institutions and the “economic terror” let loose by the United States were endorsed by both Mr Mahathir and Mr Rouhani. The latter two also spoke against economic sanctions as a tool of coercion stating that “Malaysia, Iran, Turkey and Qatar would continue discussing the option of using gold and barter-trade among themselves”. The media in most Islamic countries focused on the summit stating that Turkey’s goal was to challenge Saudi Arabia's dominance and find an alternative to its OIC. Saudi writers voiced anger over the summit, underlining Saudi Arabia’s standing as the leader of the Islamic world. It’s clear Turkey is playing a key role, but Mr Erdogan is not confident of leading the charge from European territory; the combined strength of Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan obviously favours an alternative Islamic pole emerging further east, and especially away from the Arab world. To that end, the absence of Pakistan and Indonesia meant that almost 450 million people went unrepresented; a temporary Saudi victory of sorts.
Lastly, this is probably just the beginning of the tussle within the Islamic world as Saudi Arabia faces greater challenges to its moral authority as a leader on the basis of its economic strength of the past and being the custodian of the two holy Islamic shrines. For Pakistan, this is going to remain a major dilemma given its economic situation and the special relationship it enjoys with Saudi Arabia. Sooner than later this is also going to affect India’s choices. Its ability to remain midcourse in this struggle and enjoy the best of relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran will be advantageous. Yet, the temptation to cut lines of engagement with Turkey and Malaysia should be curbed, remembering that there are no permanent friends or enemies in geopolitics.