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Monday, July 15, 2024

Pakistan and the Malaysia Summit: Opportunity foregone?

Pakistan backing out of the Kuala Lumpur Summit was no-nonsense and it has dented Pakistan's foreign image in a way that will stay there for quite some time. Pakistan's process of revitalization of relations with Iran, Qatar, Malaysia, and many other Muslim nations abruptly came to a halt.

By the time of the publication of this article, an unprecedented Summit (Summit) in the Muslim world will be underway in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It will be attended by world leaders including Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamed, Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani, and Indonesia’s Joseph Widodo.

A notable omission from the Summit will be Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as any other dignitary including Pakistan’s Foreign Minister.

Pakistan’s last-minute decision to bail out from the Summit left indelible marks on Pakistan’s foreign policy posture in the Muslim world. The implications of this may be far more than what Pakistan’s establishment and government are possibly able to fathom at this stage. This is serious and damage control will take some effort.

So how did we get here?

The September UNGA Session

Arguably, the first signs of the Summit led by Turkey, Malaysia, and Pakistan emerged during the days of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in September this year. In the UNGA session, India’s actions in Jammu & Kashmir were criticized by Mahathir Muhammad and Erdogan. Media reports indicate that it was during this UNGA session that the seeds of a new Muslim block were sown by Mahathir, Erdogan and Khan. It is back then that reports emerged about a Muslim media channel to combat Islamophobia.

Muslim world’s festering wounds

Earliest reports indicate the Summit was planned as an alternative to the OIC (though denied later). Let’s have a look at some reasons that prompted the holding of the Summit in the first place.

A parallel, albeit miniature, alternative to the UN system in the Muslim world is the Organization of Islamic Countries or OIC established in 1969

Let’s be clear on one thing. Muslim countries with a predominantly Muslim population have been at the receiving end of a plethora of conflicts (inter-state and internal), social and political turmoil as well as discontent. This all started after WWII but has gained significant traction in the last couple of decades. Add to this the never-ending clash between forces of tradition and modernism.

Caught in the midst of these are two festering wounds in the Muslim body politic: Palestine and Kashmir. The recent Rohingya persecution in Myanmar has given further credence to the perception of widespread Islamophobia in the Muslim world.

Shifting sands in the global order

The global order too is in a rapid transition. The United Nations (UN) project has been rendered largely toothless in the face of unilateral state actions. A reluctant superpower, US, is flouting international norms and ceding geo-strategic space to China and Russia.

The US’ hegemony has been dented by embarrassing losses in asymmetric theaters of conflict e.g. Afghanistan. US-China rivalry has unseated the established paradigm of inter-state relations. New multi-polar power centers are emerging in the tussle for international influence. The international order is in a state of constant flux.

Read more: Pakistan not attending Kuala Lumpur Summit: Imran Khan’s latest U-turn?

The Muslim world too is at an inflection point. Muslim countries have generally derived their geostrategic, military and economic heft from the US. A reluctant, rather detached US is making them reassess their international identity. This is prompting Muslim countries to hedge their bets on alternative power centers (Russia and China). A mishmash of competing global narratives is emerging on the international horizon.

The Muslim search for identity

A parallel, albeit miniature, alternative to the UN system in the Muslim world is the Organization of Islamic Countries or OIC established in 1969.

The OIC is the classic case of a supine organization that has left indelible marks on the Muslim conscience.

Let’s look at some cold hard facts: the OIC has 57 member states and represents around 1.7 billion Muslims or 22 percent of the world population. That’s one end of the spectrum.

The other end of the spectrum is frightening: OIC has failed to make any significant strides in resolving conflicts in the Muslim world (and not just Kashmir and Palestine). These include the Iran-Iraq war; the Saudi/UAE and Yemen conflict; and the recent blockade of Qatar by Saudis and their allies.

For Pakistan, India’s abrogation of the temporary status of Kashmir and Saudi Arabia and UAE’s lack of effective support to Pakistan after the August 5 abrogation of J&K by India wasn’t taken lightly by Pakistan

Although sitting atop 70% of the world’s energy resources, OIC member states have a meager (shameful) 8% of the global GDP. A dire lack of scientific and academic progress stares them in the face. Not a single institution from the Muslim world figures in the list of top 100 global educational institutions. Despite their staggering numbers, Muslims are no more than froth on the seabed.

The weakening Saudi pivot

Saudi Arabia has been the lynchpin of Islamic identity for both historic and political reasons. This, and the push provided by petrodollars, explains the Saudi clout in OIC, especially since the 1970s when Saudi Arabia assumed a key role in policy formulation.

But the levers of power are no longer in Saudi hands. They have suffered a loss of moral authority, caused by regional conflicts with Qatar and Yemen. That the Saudi rivalry with Iran has made it cozier with Israel has further dented its standing.

For Pakistan, India’s abrogation of the temporary status of Kashmir and Saudi Arabia and UAE’s lack of effective support to Pakistan after the August 5 abrogation of J&K by India wasn’t taken lightly by Pakistan. On the other hand, Turkey and Malaysia (and later, Iran) took a firm stand favoring Pakistan. These countries sided with Pakistan despite strong backlash from India, even while losing economic opportunities.

Read more: Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019: Imran, Erdogan & Mahathir leading from front

It is possible that in heat of the moment a decision was taken by a betrayed Pakistan at the behest of Malaysia and Turkey to consider alternatives to the OIC. Pakistan possibly miscalculated that like the international order where China is fast filling up space “ceded” by the US, Muslim worlds’ equivalent would be Turkey and Malaysia filling up the space ceded by Saudis. But Pakistan forgot that the Saudis wouldn’t be too happy seeing the baton of leadership pass from their hands to either Malaysia or Turkey. The inclusion of Qatar and Iran in the Summit would have been the icing on the cake and something non-negotiable for the Saudis.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and the Chief of Army Staff’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and UAE, respectively, is reportedly to allay Saudi concerns regarding the Summit. This explains why no Pakistani dignitary will be attending the Summit.

Could things have been done differently?

Yes, very much.

First, if an alternative to OIC was indeed contemplated, it was a bad idea. Not because the OIC has been successful as an organization or has done anything commendable in its 50 years history to resolve any issues faced by the Muslim world. Far from that. But rather because OIC is what it is: a bloc representing 57 Islamic countries.

For the Summit to have been a success it would have required across the board acceptance in, and broad participation by, all those 57 countries. This wasn’t done or no effort made to do so.

Pakistan’s own interests lie in using its pivotal geostrategic position to bring together a fragmented Muslim world and in the process jump starting its fledgling economy

Similarly, the idea floated by the Summit Organizers to have permanent 5 members who would have played a “central role” along the lines of the five permanent members of UN Security Council (UNSC) wouldn’t have gone down too well with the Arab countries. No Arab country, especially that with economic clout like the Saudis, would have stayed a silent spectator.

Another tactual blunder was that no invitation to attend the Summit was sent to Saudi Arabia, UAE and other Arab countries such as Egypt and Jordan. Even if any such invitation was sent, it was sent belatedly when doubts would have risen in the minds of Arab leaders about the intentions behind the Summit. Again, not good.

What Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia ought to have done right around the time the Summit was planned was to have taken all Arab countries on board to allay their fears and concerns. This would have meant dispatching emissaries from Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia to the Arab world and explaining that Summit is intended to supplement the OIC rather than re-invent the wheel. And this takes me to the last past of what possibly the Summit could have focused on instead of taking up the entire gamut of “ills” facing the Muslim world.

Too much on the plate?

The organizers of the Summit took up a rather ambitious agenda: “the first step toward finding solutions to the Islamic world’s ills”. Areas to discuss include “displacement of Muslims worldwide, food security, national/cultural identity, Islamophobia, technology, security, and trade, reviving “Islamic civilization, finding solutions to problems afflicting the Muslim world and forming a global network between “Islamic leaders, intellectuals, scholars, and thinkers”. A broad wish list indeed.

The ‘political will’ required to translate these initiatives into tangible outcomes is very difficult if not impossible when one considers the multi-polar world where Muslim countries are geopolitically and geostrategically aligned with world powers (US, China, Russia).

Read more: Muslim 5: Pakistan Supports Dr. Mahathir’s Kuala Lumpur Summit

Instead, the Summit should have narrowed down on key workable objectives. This could have meant reaching consensus on other issues such as economic revival in the Muslim world through a common banking system that could provide a lifeline to Muslim countries with a struggling economy such as Pakistan.

Other possible areas could have been discussing ways and means of resolving burning disputes between power centers led by Saudi Arabia, UAE versus Iran and Qatar and putting an end to the Yemen and Syrian wars. The Summit could also have been the forum for softening the edges of Malaysia and Turkey’s posture towards the Arab world.

As technology and education have never been the forte of Muslim countries, setting up centers of research and academic excellence could have been a breath of fresh air in the Muslim world.

Pakistan could have played a central role in all this had it played its cards well at the right time by roping in both Turkey, Malaysia, Iran and Qatar on the one side and the Arab world on the other.

Pakistan’s own interests lie in using its pivotal geostrategic position to bring together a fragmented Muslim world and in the process jump-starting its fledgling economy. Lest we forget, it is the weak economy that was the reason behind Pakistan having been pressurized by Saudi Arabia and UAE to back out from the Summit. Something that Pakistan had no choice but to oblige.

Read more: Qatar’s predicted absence in Gulf summit: regional tensions arise

Pakistan’s backing out from the Summit at the last minute has put it in a precarious position. Recently Pakistan had taken up upon itself the challenge of bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran to the negotiating table. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resolve to this effect is commendable. If there is any country that can achieve this, it is Pakistan. But if Pakistan was hoping that it would be able to accomplish this by creating an alternative bloc of Muslim countries then this was a bad idea and a non-starter.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office should learn a lesson or two from this debacle and avoid putting Pakistan in such embarrassing situations in the future. This can hurt Pakistan’s credibility in the Muslim world – something it can ill afford particularly at this crucial juncture.

Hassan Aslam Shad is the head of practice of a leading Middle Eastern law firm. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, U.S.A., with a focus on international law and corporate law. Over the years, Hassan has written extensively on topics of law including public and private international law and international relations. Hassan has the distinctive honor of being the first person from Pakistan to intern at the Office of the President of the International Criminal Court, The Hague. He can be reached at: veritas@post.harvard.edu. His Twitter handle is: @HassShad. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.