Why did Saudi Arabia threaten Pakistan over Kuala Lumpur Summit?
Imran Khan has announced that he will not be attending the summit of Muslim countries in Kuala Lumpur. Indonesia has also pulled out. The withdrawal of the two largest Muslim countries is a body blow to Mahathir Mohamed’s summit that was touted as the most significant challenge to the status quo in the Muslim world.
Mahathir’s summit was a challenge to the established institutions such as the OIC which has long been accused of being ineffective and hampered by internal divisions primarily driven in recent times by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Moreover, Mahathir clearly directed the blame for the current situation at Saudi Arabia and the UAE by inviting their two rivals Qatar and Turkey.
The message did not go amiss in Riyadh. Since the announcement, Saudi Arabia has engaged in extensive lobbying with the two largest Muslim countries with which it has significant ties; Pakistan and Indonesia. Riyadh has a long history with Pakistan across all sectors including the military. In support of Imran Khan, Saudi Arabia has put more than USD5 billion into the Pakistani economy and turned a blind eye to the Pakistani military’s refusal to partake in the war in Yemen and join in pressuring Iran. For Pakistan, Yemen is a pointless war and antagonising Iran with which it shares an extensive border dominated by Pakistani Shia minority is considered by nearly all in Pakistan as foolish. Nevertheless, bilateral relations have only improved under the current prime minister.
Imran Khan visited Riyadh on 14December, four days before the summit was due to start. During the visit, Bin Salman appears to have laid out the Saudi position to the Pakistani Prime Minister; do not attend the summit or we will withdraw economic support. It is no secret that Imran Khan has struggled with an economic crisis and there is mounting frustration within Pakistan at the slow state of progress. Pakistan currently relies heavily on support from allies as it tries to tackle the immediate issues.
Khan has reason to take Bin Salman’s threat seriously. While the Pakistani economy ails, many families rely on support from relatives working in the Saudi kingdom. As the kingdom pursues Saudi-sation of the workforce to cater to a growing unemployed youth population, it is a genuine possibility that Bin Salman could begin restricting the number of Pakistani workers and force significant numbers to return home. The influx into Pakistan would put significant pressure on the economy, and the already difficult unemployment situation would be exacerbated even further. This would be compounded by the withdrawal of Saudi funds from Pakistani banks. Given how Bin Salman coerced companies to partake in the ARAMCO IPO, it is clear Saudi companies of significant standing have become a foreign policy weapon, irrespective of whether it is to the detriment of the companies themselves.
Imran Khan would be faced with a full-on crisis, with few alternatives. Neither Turkey, Qatar, nor Malaysia would be able temper the immediate impact of Saudi Arabia’s vengeance.
For Saudi Arabia, the Kuala Lumpur Summit is considered an insult. The headquarters of the Organisation of Islamic Countries is in Jeddah, and Saudi Arabia is the current head of the organisation having taken over from Turkey last year. More importantly, Saudi Arabia knew that if the summit succeeded, it would spark a snowball effect whereby the centre of the Muslim World would shift from Saudi Arabia to the non-Arab countries. Bin Salman is already perceived as seeking to liberalise Saudi society by removing Islam from Saudi society following his imprisonment of high-profile religious figures such as Salman al-Oudah, and the appointment of Turki al-Sheikh as head of the General Authority of Entertainment who has overseen music concerts, discos, wrestling, and other major events frowned upon by more conservative (and popular) elements of society. This would be a profound and irreparable indictment on Bin Salman’s reign.
Saudi Arabia’s coercion appears to have succeeded. Imran Khan called his Malaysian counterpart and cited ‘national security concerns’ as the reason for his absence.
Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Khan and Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s absences has not gone unnoticed. The Malaysian Prime Minister has reacted by inviting Saudi Arabia’s arch nemesis Iran to the summit. However, this does not compensate for the loss of the two largest Muslim nations in the world.
Moreover, where Mahathir might have exploited sympathies in the Arab world towards his unfortunate plight brought about by the machinations of Riyadh, his invitation of Iran has made it difficult for Arabs to defend his summit. Iran continues to be perceived as responsible for significant instability in Iraq and behind the deaths of Iraqi protestors, and one of the prime allies of Syria’s vilified and much loathed President Bashar al-Assad.
In any event, whatever the dynamics, Saudi Arabia appears to have succeeded in thwarting Mahathir’s project. However, given how Riyadh has humiliated Islamabad, it is not far-fetched to assume that Khan, and the Pakistani military, will be mulling over how to decrease its reliance on Riyadh. Although Saudi Arabia has secured a diplomatic victory over Turkey, Malaysia, and Qatar, it may pay a heavy price for it in the future.