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Does Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the new Muslim alliance? Open in fullscreen

Sabena Siddiqui

Does Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the new Muslim alliance?

The event was visualised by Malaysia's PM Mahathir Muhammad as a 'mini Islamic summit' [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 January, 2020

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The KL Summit hopes to be a leading force in shaping and restoring Islamic civilisation, but why does Saudi Arabia feel threatened by this new Muslim power bloc?
A new platform was inaugurated in Kuala Lumpur recently to discuss issues related to Muslim countries. Visualised by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad as a 'mini Islamic summit', the forum was to be launched by a 'core group' of five countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan.

Planned just a few months ago, this idea occurred to the leaders of Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey during meetings on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. After that, Qatar, Indonesia and Iran were included and the leaders of all these states confirmed their attendance.

Visiting some more Muslim countries to invite their leaders, Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah went to Oman but Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were not included for the time being.

As elaborated by Dr Mahathir, "We (the summit) select small countries that will have the time and effort to find solutions that is why we choose these five countries."

In the first phase, the membership of the new forum was exclusive in order to set its direction and agenda. Once it was established, more countries were to be invited to join and the forum would be renamed the Perdana Dialogue.

Surprisingly, when the KL Summit finally took place, only Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iran's President Rouhani and Qatar's Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani participated. While Indonesia's President Joko Widodo had excused that he was unable to attend due to 'exhaustion', Pakistan's PM Imran Khan had cancelled his visit to Malaysia just days before the summit.

Read more here: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan cancels Malaysia 'OIC rival summit' following 'Saudi pressure'

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Having confirmed his attendance just days ago, it was obvious that something unusual had happened to prevent the premier from arriving in Kuala Lumpur. According to some reports in the media, Riyadh had pressurised Islamabad not to participate in the KL Summit but the situation remained unclear.

But why would Saudi Arabia feel threatened by the new Muslim alliance?

For starters, the KL Summit was perceived as a potential threat to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as it was similar enough to be an alternate platform. However, it is to be more broad-based, modern and in line with democratic norms. Erdogan called for a revisit of the terms of reference of the OIC during his opening speech at the forum.

Second, as Riyadh was not on the best of terms with most of the countries included in the core group at the inaugural session of the KL Summit, a backlash could be expected.

As Riyadh was not on the best of terms with most of the countries included in the core group at the inaugural session of the KL Summit, a backlash could be expected

Third, the summit members announced the launch of a common currency called dinar between the participating Muslim states. Meanwhile, both the OIC and the GCC Summit have not been able to propose a common currency due to difference of opinion among members.

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Considering that the new bloc has no competition or rivalry between participating states, it could prove more effective than the OIC in the long run.

Before the summit, Saudi King Salman had phoned Mahathir to say that issues of the Muslim world should be discussed only through the OIC. According to Malaysian media, Riyadh pressurised Mahathir to cancel the summit but he refused to back down and insisted that the KL Summit was not being held to replace the OIC and create a new power bloc.

In the meantime, Khan confirmed his intention to attend the summit on November 29. After that he paid a quick visit to Riyadh just three days before leaving for Kuala Lumpur in order to alleviate Saudi concerns but they were not convinced and on his return home, the Pakistan Foreign Office announced the PM would not participate in the summit.

Explaining why Khan could not attend the KL Summit, President Erdogan has recently revealed that Pakistan gave in to Saudi demands as Riyadh threatened to withdraw billions of dollars deposited in its State Bank and also expel four million Pakistanis working in the kingdom if Khan went to Kuala Lumpur.

Not only that, he implied that Indonesia was also pressurised as it is suffering from similar problems.

Dismissing these claims as 'baseless' and that Saudi-Pak ties were cordial and did not warrant the use of any threatening language, the Saudi Embassy immediately issued a statement denying Erdogan's allegations. In tandem, Pakistan's Foreign Office also explained that Islamabad did not send any representative to the summit as it wanted to maintain neutrality.

"Pakistan did not participate in the Kuala Lumpur summit because time and efforts were needed to address the concerns of major Muslim countries, regarding possible division in the Ummah," it said in a statement.

After the outburst from the Turkish President, the situation became embarrassing for Islamabad and a lot of criticism was faced at home. Apparently, the invite from the Malaysian PM had been accepted by the Prime Minister's Office despite cautionary advice from the Pakistan Foreign Office that attending the summit could have major implications.

Even Riyadh seems to have felt uncomfortable after Erdogan's allegations and the Saudi Foreign minister arrived in Islamabad.

Mainly, the purpose of this visit was to convey the gratitude of the Saudi leadership for not attending the summit in Kuala Lumpur keeping in view the kingdom's reservations. Additionally, this was a gesture of solidarity in face of Turkish accusations.

According to an Arab diplomatic source, "The Saudis also want to dispel the impression, which was reinforced by Erdogan's allegations, that their attitude towards Islamabad is patronising."

On the whole, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud stressed on the significance of the fraternal bond and re-affirmed Riyadh's "steadfast support to Pakistan's core national interests."

The fact that the Kashmir issue was discussed at the KL Summit in Pakistan's absence had made matters worse for Islamabad and Riyadh has often been criticised in the past for its silence over India's actions there.

This has been one of the main reasons why the KL Summit had found strong support in Pakistan.

Consequently, as an olive branch, the OIC is now prepared to play a more effective role in lessening the plight of the residents of Indian-held Kashmir. In April 2020, a ministerial level OIC meeting is to be convened to discuss the Kashmir situation as well as the anti-Muslim citizenship law enacted by New Delhi.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi

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