Why was the Kuala Lumpur Summit significant?

Sami Hamdi Middle East/North Africa

A summit that brought together Turkey, Qatar, and Malaysia, a last-minute invitation for Iran, and a threat from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to Pakistan and Indonesia warning them not to attend.

Why was the Kuala Lumpur Summit significant enough to warrant such a series of diplomatic manoeuvres?

Put simply, the summit was a challenge to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, and engineered in a manner that sought to rebuke the current Saudi leadership over its domestic and foreign policy, and suggest a sign of no confidence in Saudi Arabia’s leadership and standing in the Muslim world. There have been deep concerns in the Muslim World not only with regards to Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy that has seen it engage in a protracted conflict in Yemen, a blockade on Qatar, and facilitating military coups in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya, but also with regards to domestic reforms that have seen a clear drive by the Saudi government to reel back the influence of Islam. The 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 have exacerbated these concerns.

Mahathir’s summit was also 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. The OIC headquarters is in Jeddah and the current secretary general is a representative of Saudi Arabia. Mahathir clearly directed the blame for the current issues dogging the institution at Saudi Arabia and the UAE by inviting their two rivals Qatar and Turkey, which represents a dramatic shift for a country which only a year ago was firmly in the Saudi orbit under Najib Razak.

Moreover, the summit reflected the expanding influence and growing strength of the Turkey-Qatar partnership. When Bahrain, Egypt, UAE, and Saudi Arabia decided to impose the blockade on Qatar, they expected Doha to succumb and become isolated. When Qatar instead decided to significantly improve its ties with Turkey, Ankara’s tensions with the US and Russia led to assumptions in the Gulf capitals that the alliance was merely two struggling entities seeking comfort in one another. However, not only has Qatar managed to ride out the blockade, and not only has Ankara managed to impose itself as a major power on both Russia and the US, the summit was proof that the alliance has expanded to include Malaysia, and the sympathies of Pakistan and Indonesia.

These realities did not go amiss in Riyadh which fully appreciated the threat that the summit posed. By inviting Pakistan and Indonesia, the two largest Muslim countries by population, Mahathir intended for his summit to represent more than 50% of the global Muslim population, thereby issuing a clear rebuke to Saudi Arabia and undermining its credibility as an Islamic leader; a reputation that is primarily rooted in its administration of the two Holy Mosques.

To counter the potential threat, Saudi Arabia invited Imran Khan to Riyadh four days before the summit was due to start. In a meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince, the Pakistani prime minister was told that if he attended the summit, then the kingdom would abandon its investments, expel Pakistani workers, and withdraw its money from Pakistan’s central bank.

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 had 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.

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 have been 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.

Saudi Arabian officials also contacted Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo is due to visit the kingdom next month seeking investments for his ailing economy.

As a result of Saudi pressure, both Pakistan and Indonesia pulled out of the summit, severely denting its impact. In a sign of remorse, Pakistan sent its foreign minister, suggesting that Imran Khan is keen to maintain relations with those perceived by Saudi as antagonists.

Realising that the summit would not have the same impact as intended, Mahathir expressed his anger by inviting Saudi Arabia’s nemesis; Iran. Where the summit would have been seen as a Muslim rebuke of Saudi Arabia, it became an informal announcement of a new bloc to rival Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.  Although Saudi Arabia averted a crisis by pressuring Pakistan and Indonesia to withdraw, thereby preventing a ‘Muslim’ rebuke, Riyadh will nevertheless be concerned by this expanding influence of the Turkey-Qatar partnership.

The outcomes of the summit include a declaration to explore the establishment of an alternative financial system outside the dollar that would allow the countries to bypass sanctions. This is significant for Turkey and Iran which are expecting more turbulent times ahead, and for Mahathir who anticipates that his politics of antagonism are going to land him in trouble sooner or later. Qatar, however, will be concerned over the implication this has for its relationship with the US which remains vital to its security.

In any event, the Kuala Lumpur Summit is a significant development, and signals the most open challenge to the current status quo in the Muslim world.