Abubakar Farooqui

The Kuala Lampur Summit is a new development in the Muslim World, especially at a time when splits and divides in the Ummah have reached new heights and the problems encountered are yet to witness developments in terms of discovering and implementing solutions.

Prime Minister Imran Khan changed his mind in the last hour and decided not to participate in the summit. Islamabad, then went on to state that Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi would also skip the summit, on the pretext that the Islamic Republic wanted to be a ‘part of the solution and not the problem’. It was stated from Islamabad that the country desired to enhance cooperation and not cause widening of rifts among various states.

This article attempts to investigate Pakistan’s decision to skip the summit and the standing of the decision vis a vis Pakistan’s national interests and the wider interest of the Muslim World. It also discusses the realpolitik in the Ummah, which is shaping the interaction among Muslim countries and argues how Pakistan’s presence in the summit would have benefited the country.

Pakistan was one of the first countries which were informed of the initiative by the Malaysia Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir. On November 29, Pakistan’s Prime Minister officially accepted the invitation to join Kuala Lampur summit, realising that the decision would come at the cost of Saudi Arabia’s chagrin.

Pakistan desired to participate in the summit, but not at all costs, especially when the participation would put strain on Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia, which were economically vital for the struggling economy of the country. Saudi Arabia’s $6 Billion package for Pakistan helped the latter attain a degree of financial stability. To reduce Saudi Arabia concerns, Pakistan managed to get invites of the summit delivered to Saudi Arabia and UAE while it also succeeded in convincing Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir to visit Riyadh on December 6. However, much to Pakistan’s misfortune, Saudi Arabia could not approve the date as Riyadh was to host a GCC meeting that day.

Pakistan desired to participate in the summit, but not at all costs, especially when the participation would put strain on Pakistan’s ties with Saudi Arabia

Pakistan’s decision to stay away from the KL summit and the official justification that it did not want to widen the gap but to become a bridge between Muslim countries, would have been met with grace across the entire Muslim world had it come after internal contemplation and not Prime Minister Khan’s visit to Riyadh. The fact that Pakistan earlier agreed to participate and then pulled out at the final minute only highlighted the country’s inability to command autonomy in terms of foreign policy. It showed that it was not just ‘neutrality’ which Pakistan aimed at, primarily because it had officially accepted the invitation on November 29.

Pakistan’s acceptance of the invitation could indicate to two perspectives here. Either Pakistan’s participation would not seriously undermine its ties with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan would get Saudi Arabia on board in Kuala Lampur and mitigate the differences between the two blocs which are apparent in the Muslim world. I believe it was miscalculation, on Islambad’s behalf of Riyadh’s concerns and their impact on Islamabad. It appears that Pakistan was a bit surprised by Saudi Arabia’s resolve against the summit and what Pakistan’s participation would mean to the kingdom.

Pakistan’s decision to pull out of KL Summit at final minute only highlighted the country’s inability to command autonomy in terms of foreign policy.

It was clear that Saudi Arabia saw the summit as an attempt to undermine Riyadh dominated Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) whose secretary general Yousef al-Othaimeen also criticised the summit on the pretext that “such gatherings would weaken Islam”. Though Malaysian Prime Minister had a conference video call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the deadlock persisted as the later stressed that problems of Muslim world were supposed to be discussed in OIC and not such a summit where only few heads of governments of Muslim countries were invited.

The problems faced by the Muslim world have been very ineffectively dealt in the past and much that has been seen in terms of ‘dealing’ was rhetoric from the OIC. The KL Summit did indicate that the issues faced by the Muslim world are beyond the capacity or mechanism of OIC and that a better mechanism needs to be designed to, at least minimise, the suffering of Muslims across the globe. The theme of the summit was ” The Role of Development in Achieving National Sovereignty” echoed the agenda of self-reliance of the Muslim world. Malaysian PM went on to propose launching combined currency and crypto-currency for Islamic world to make a serious move towards self-reliance.

It was speculated that Pakistan’s decision not to participate was also influenced by the factor that human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in China’s autonomous territory Xinjiang, were to be discussed and condemned in the summit. Notwithstanding the fact that Turkey candidly condemned Chinese human rights violations, the factor did not make into the agenda of the summit. Hence, Pakistan’s participation in the summit would not have essentially antagonised China and the factor played no important role in Pakistan’s calculations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that Saudi Arabia “threatened Pakistan” to force it out of the summit, by using Saudi money in Pakistan’s central banks as a bargaining chip. The withdrawal of Saudi money could wreck havoc on Pakistan’s fragile economy which has seen a moment of stability after a long struggle, on the go since 2018. Though Saudi Embassy in Islamabad issued a denial regarding threatening Pakistan, there is some reality in Erdogan’s rhetoric regarding Saudi threats. After Prime Minister Khan visited Riyadh, the decision to skip the summit indicated that Pakistan was pressurised, if not exactly “threatened”.

Pakistan’s participation in the summit would not have essentially antagonised China and thus the factor played no important role in Pakistan’s calculations.

Considering President Erdogan’s bias towards Saudi Arabia, his views regarding Saudi pressure on Pakistan can be called exaggeration of an actual account that might have been shared by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan when the two leaders met on the sidelines of the very first Global Refugee Forum in Geneva just before the Kuala Lampur Summit. During the meeting, Pakistani Prime Minister had informed Turkish president regarding Pakistan’s change of mind in the last minute.

Pakistan’s recent diplomatic campaign had been largely focused on Kashmir and the only two Muslim countries that spoke for the cause in the UN General Assembly Session 2019 were Turkey and Malaysia. Kashmir is not just Pakistan’s responsibility but a cause that should be spearheaded by the Muslim world but the Muslim world is split on the issue. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have embraced India’s giant market and overtly preferred economic collaboration with India to providing even little diplomatic support to Pakistan for Kashmir cause. The summit was an ideal platform to substantiate support of the Muslim world for Kashmir as the OIC has been a complete disappointment for Pakistan in this regard.

The Muslim world faces serious challenges, which are so great, that they cannot be addressed by a few countries. These challenges demand the attention and will power of the entire Muslim world but undoubtedly, leadership has to emerge from somewhere and Turkey, Malaysia, Qatar have made an attempt just in that direction. The ummah needs a powerful platform that could converge the interest of Muslim countries by providing more incentive and mitigating distrust. Either OIC should reorganise itself and become more effective by coming up with a more active mechanism to stop the plight of the ummah or other Muslim countries which are capable of leading Muslim world towards self-reliance are to advance the cause of 1.7 Billion Muslims in the International politics whose realm is governed or rather dictated by realpolitik.

Whether Kuala Lampur Summit attempted to create a bloc parallel to the OIC is a question that concerned Saudi Arabia and her allies the most. Malaysians think the Saudis are “reading too much” in this regard and so, due to this official narrative, which was then reiterated by Dr. Mahathir Muhammad too during the inaugural session of the summit, Pakistan had the margin to make a move by participating in its own interest as well as in the wider interest of the Ummah.

From where we stand in time, Pakistan’s last minute withdrawal did more harm than good. The pressures on Pakistan were visibly understandable, but then effective diplomacy is gauged and bench-marked under such pressures. The entire episode exposed Islamabad’s weakness both in terms of calculation and then response.

Whether Saudi Arabia threatened Pakistan or not, it certainly put Pakistan under pressure, deterring it from participating in a summit that it deemed important for both for its own interests and the interests of the wider Muslim world. Pakistan’s absence in the summit will not make Turkey and Malaysia change their stance on supporting Kashmir but it certainly sent a message of Pakistan being less autonomous, even in the Muslim world, as was perceived earlier.

About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale 47. He Studies International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.

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