External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj concluded her address at the Inaugural Session as ;Guest of Honour’ at Council of Foreign Ministers of OIC on March 1, 2019. Photo: Twitter/@MEAIndia

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Envisaged to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s 46th Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Abu Dhabi was a peculiar affair. The March 1 meeting, which coincided with the OIC’s 50th-anniversary celebrations, was held at the backdrop of continued tensions between Iran and the Saudi-led Gulf bloc, as well as a genuine threat of war between Pakistan and India.

One of its founding members and staunchest supporters, Pakistan has consistently employed the OIC forum to project the decades-old Kashmir dispute and lobbied successfully to resist any Indian bid for membership in the organization. However, in recent years, India has made forays into the Middle East and attempted to mount a challenge to Pakistan’s historical sway in the region.

Although it seems unlikely that India would in any way replace Pakistan in the Middle East, it has nonetheless managed to secure deals ensuring strategic and military cooperation with Oman and the United Arab Emirates, in addition to a Saudi pledge to invest almost US$100 billion in India over the course of two years. At the same time; Pakistan’s decision to refrain from intervening militarily in Yemen was seen by the Saudi-led coalition as amounting to betrayal, specifically by the UAE, which warned that Pakistan would have to pay “a heavy price” for its stance.

The UAE’s decision to extend an invitation to India’s Sushma Swaraj to attend the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting, and its subsequent refusal either to retract the invitation or postpone the session in the wake of Pakistan-India border tensions, prompted a Pakistani boycott of the session. In support of Pakistan’s decision, Turkey too decided to opt out, whereas representatives from Iran staged an early walkout in protest of the Emirati foreign minister’s hawkish conduct. Similar to Pakistan, Iran has encountered difficulties engaging with an aggressive UAE, which has emerged as a power broker in numerous regional conflicts.

More worryingly, the conservative Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia have repeatedly exploited the OIC as a tool in their geo-sectarian tussle with Iran. Seeking to counter Iran’s revolutionary brand of pan-Islamism, the OIC’s Arab bloc engineered the return of Egypt to the organization, which had previously been expelled after the Camp David Accords of 1978.

The conservative Gulf monarchies led by Saudi Arabia have repeatedly exploited the OIC as a tool in their geo-sectarian tussle with Iran. Seeking to counter Iran’s revolutionary brand of pan-Islamism, the OIC’s Arab bloc engineered the return of Egypt to the organization, which had previously been expelled after the Camp David Accords of 1978

Similarly, the OIC platform was manipulated by the Sunni monarchies to place the blame for the continuation of the bloody Iran-Iraq war solely on Tehran.

Apart from utilizing the OIC as an instrument for propagating pan-Arabism, the Saudis have also exercised their leverage to use the OIC forum for legitimizing their state interests and anti-Iranian posture. The OIC’s reaction in the aftermath of the 1987 hajj rioting incident, which led to the deaths of almost 400 pilgrims, mostly Iranians, presents a striking example in this regard. Choosing to overlook the heavy-handed response of the Saudi security forces, the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in 1988 instead criticized Iranian pilgrims for perpetrating acts of “disruption and sabotage.”

The Saudi-Iranian rift was further deepened by the rise in Iranian geopolitical influence after 2003 and the tremors of the Arab Spring, which shattered the myth of Arab political stability.

An added complication to the equation has been the emergence of Qatar as a major player in the international system and the resultant intra-Gulf divide, which has pitted the Saudi-Emirati camp against Qatar. The increasingly militaristic behavior displayed by the UAE in Yemen has also meant that the tiny Gulf state has taken a leading role in the anti-Iran Arab bloc, lobbying extensively in the OIC of late to engage in shaming Tehran for its supposed interference in the Arab world.

The effects of the lobbying were apparent at the OIC’s 2016 Istanbul summit, which concluded with a joint statement that singled out Iran for its “continued support for terrorism and interference” in domestic affairs of fellow member states. Moreover, OIC Secretary-General Yousaf Al-Othaimeen drew a furious reaction from Tehran as he appeared to welcome US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal. The Abu Dhabi Council of Foreign Ministers meeting again followed a similar trajectory, with the UAE taking the lead in condemning Iran for spreading “chaos and sectarianism” in the Middle East.

It is therefore puzzling that the OIC’s powerful Saudi-Emirati faction, having already alienated Iran, would choose to risk discord with Pakistan by refusing to cater to its reservations concerning the Indian foreign minister’s attendance. Pakistan has reiterated on numerous occasions that it views Indian participation at any level of the OIC as a clear violation of the organization’s founding principles.

The Pakistani decision to boycott, which drew mixed reactions from within the country, was nevertheless aimed at pre-empting any future involvement by India in the OIC. The Pakistanis were also disappointed that the UAE had refused to retract its invitation even as the Pakistani and Indian militaries were trading fire in Kashmir and the situation appeared to be at a breaking point. In addition, the Pakistanis had to bare further embarrassment as Sushma Swaraj, while taking an apparent stab at Pakistan, appealed to the OIC for concrete efforts to counter states’ export of terror.

Furthermore, despite the OIC adopting a special resolution that condemned Indian military atrocities in Jammu and Kashmir, the final dispatch of the Abu Dhabi Declaration included no mention of either the abuses by the Indian security apparatus nor a condemnation of India’s violation of Pakistani airspace.

Despite a genuine feeling of disillusionment, the reaction from Islamabad thus far to the proceedings of the Abu Dhabi meeting has been measured. Already under considerable strain stemming from the ongoing border tension with India, Pakistan has attempted to play down the significance and impact of what was a landmark achievement in Indian foreign policy.

Although it is probable that the Indian foreign minister’s attendance at the OIC Abu Dhabi summit was a one-off event and that Pakistan’s response of boycotting it left the field open for the Indians, the event could also signal a more significant shift in OIC relations with major non-Arab Muslim powers. With the Iranians already deeply troubled concerning the OIC’s manipulation by a few Arab states, the organizations can ill afford to alienate Pakistan, with which it has previously had a deep-rooted history of cooperation.

Moreover, the UAE has of late acted in a manner detrimental to the OIC’s objective of a unified Islamic front geared toward the projection of Muslim interests globally. The UAE’s hostile bilateral relations with Tehran and its irking of Pakistan since the country opted for neutrality on the Yemen issue has in essence resulted in a spillover effect, as the UAE appears to be utilizing its disproportionate influence and newly found prestige in the international system for the purpose of manipulating the OIC for its state interests.

While intra-OIC rivalries have been a constant feature of the organization since its establishment, the damaging role of the UAE could lead to further splitting and division along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The Abu Dhabi meeting also presents Pakistan with a valuable lesson, that its over-reliance on the Arab states, which appear to be moving ever so close to India, is a risky strategy could result in a repeat of such episodes in the future.

One possible option for Pakistan could be greater support for Iranian-initiated resolutions at the OIC and effective lobbying by non-Arab OIC states to offset the powerful Arab bloc. Such a scenario would be a welcome development, since it would allow the organization to cater to interests of the majority of the world’s Muslims. Arabs today constitute just 20% of the global Muslim population and the OIC as an organization should hence reflect the concerns of the overwhelmingly majority of Muslims based in the non-Arab world.

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Ammad Malik

Ammad Malik is a defense and security analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan. His work focuses on Pakistan's relationship with the Middle East and issues concerning military strategy.

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