GP Insights

GP Insights # 207, 21 December 2019

Mahathir holds an Islamic Summit in Malaysia, minus Saudi Arabia and its allies
Sukanya Bali

What happened?

Mahathir Mohammad, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, went ahead and held an Islamic Summit at Kuala Lumpur last week to address issues faced by Muslims community and to lay down a strategy to improve lives of Muslims across the world. President Hassan Rouhani of Iran, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar took part in the summit. Along with them, around 400 Muslim scholars and 150 Malaysian delegates also attended the meet. Saudi Arabia and its closest allies, including Pakistan, did not attend the summit.

According to leaders, the summit also aimed to look into, the international community's perception of Islam, the rise of Islamophobia, decline of Islamic civilization and reforms in governance needed in Muslim countries.

What is the background?

A few weeks earlier, Mahathir, Erdogan and Imran Khan announced to hold an Islamic commit with Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan taking the lead. Perhaps, the objective was to have a non-Middle East led Islamic leadership. In terms of size, the majority of Muslims live outside the Middle East. However, the general perception is that Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting for the leadership role for the Ummah, with Riyadh having a more substantial say.

Second, there was also a firm conviction that the internal divisions within the Ummah are making the community weak. Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed leader of the Muslim world, is at war with Yemen, had imposed blockade on Qatar, is in tacit approval of the state of Israel and has poor relations with Iran. It is a staunch ally of the US. 

Third, there was also a strong belief that global Muslim problems are not finding enough voice. The OIC's response to Israel's intention of annexing West Bank, in September, was unsatisfactory to many countries. The meeting was also set to talk about the plight of Uighur and Rohingya Muslims. Pakistan's concerns over Kashmir also did not receive due attention due to Saudi Arabia and its allies relationship with India. Others, for example, the UAE called India's policy towards Kashmir as an internal matter of concern.

All the members of Saudi-based Organisation Islamic Countries were invited for the summit to discuss issues about the Muslim community. 

Pakistan had to pull out of the summit seemingly under pressure from Saudi Arabia. 

What does it mean?

Firstly, Saudi Arabia's leadership of the Muslim world is receding. King Salman had expressed its unhappiness over Malaysia's attempt to host a summit of Islamic countries away from OIC. This meeting will also question the potential status of OIC, which began with 57 Muslim majority countries in 1969, across the Muslim world.

Secondly, Kuala Lampur Islamic summit away from the OIC banner shows that individual members of OIC have an independent relationship with other countries. There is no collective framework guiding the members' relationship with other countries. 

Thirdly, Pakistan's absence in the summit shows how dependent it is on Saudi Arabia over the foreign policy decision making. 

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