Kuala Lumpur Summit: A Move for Unity in the Islamic World?

The Kuala Lumpur Summit, held in the Malaysian capital for the first time in 2019, described itself as “an international platform for Muslim leaders, intellectuals and scholars from around the world to discuss and exchange ideas about the issues revolving in the Muslim world.” The summit, hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad from December 19-21 was viewed as an attempt to create a new bloc in the Muslim world that could become an alternative to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) led by Saudi Arabia.

On December 19, 2019, leaders and senior representatives from some of the world’s most populous Muslim-majority countries gathered in the Malaysian capital to discuss issues agitating Muslims globally. The Summit was expected to answer some of the burning questions faced by the global Muslim community today including disputes in Kashmir and the Middle East, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority, mounting outrage over China’s camps for Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and how to counter the spread of Islamophobia in the world.

Notably, high-tier representatives from Saudi Arabia were not invited, which also resulted in a Saudi cleric publicly dismissing and snubbing the conference. Saudi Arabia said the Summit was the wrong forum for matters of importance to the world’s 1.75 billion Muslims. There are several geopolitical factors currently at work, which led to Saudi Arabia not receiving an invitation to the summit.

Firstly, it is clear that a growing number of Muslim-majority countries have become uncomfortable with Riyadh’s leadership in Islamic affairs since the ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). From the Yemen war to a growing tacit alliance with Israel to the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, MbS has made a number of decisions that have unsettled many in Muslim-majority countries. Islamic leadership across the world is now afraid of the shock ripples that will erupt when MbS becomes the next Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. These countries have perspectives on many issues facing Muslim countries that strongly differ from MbS’ own views and priorities.

Secondly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid Al-Thani, were known to be coming for the Summit. These countries have severely hostile ties with Saudi Arabia and therefore, some analysts suspected the kingdom was being diplomatically isolated by regional rivals: Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

Finally and most importantly, the summit is a clear attempt to break through the hegemonic power that the OIC has enjoyed, as far as redressal of global Islamic problems by the Muslim community is concerned. Qatari journalist Jaber al-Harami had stated that the Summit will be about laying the foundations for an Islamic alliance that could pursue joint projects, including, eventually, the introduction of a common currency. “The initiative is ambitious, and comes in accordance with the aspirations of these countries, especially as some of them talked about the creation of an Islamic bloc focused on defense industries, development, and good governance, and Qatar had a [lead] in this aspect.” And obviously, Saudi Arabia, has many problems with this clear challenge set out by the Islamic world, led by Malaysia’s 94-year PM and its own regional rivals.

Another turncoat for the Kuala Lumpur conference was Pakistan. Initially, Prime Minister Imran Khan not only offered his support for the initiative, but also announced that he would attend the event. Many in Pakistan’s policy-making circle are of the opinion that the OIC has done virtually nothing to call out India or offer support to Pakistan globally in this regard and, thus, the KL Summit offered an opportunity when it comes to discussing the Kashmir issue. However, Pakistan backed out of the conference, allegedly under extreme political pressure from its ally, Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s anger over the initiative is such that Pakistan was forced to cancel even its ministerial-level representation. Pakistan’s decision shows that Riyadh still retains significant leverage over Pakistan’s foreign policy.

The Kuala Lumpur Summit has brought to light significant issues that still plague foreign policies in the Islamic world. It shows the resentment that several Islamic countries have garnered towards Saudi Arabia and the status it enjoys, both globally and within the Islamic community. It also depicts that the resistance towards Saudi’s powers is spreading beyond Turkey, Iran and Qatar and is now seeping into other corners of the world. This is not only a threat to Saudis but also to the USA, which is its central Western ally. The changing status of Saudi Arabia in the world also holds immense importance for the outcomes of the many proxy wars that it is invested in, including Yemen and Syria. The KL summit has brought to scrutiny the fractures and rifts that continue to exist in the modern Islamic world, despite being an initiative to bring the global Muslim community closer together.


Ashima Makhija

I am pursuing Economics (Honours) from Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi. I spend my time solving fictional murder mysteries and avoiding real-life mysteries (seriously, when did I last open my course book?).

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