Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (right) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talk on December 18, 2019, before the Kuala Lumpur Summit. Photo: AFP / Maszuandi Adnan / Malaysian Department of Information

The Kuala Lumpur Summit being hosted by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur this week was originally conceived as a landmark event in the politics of the Muslim world.

It still is, albeit on shakier ground after being abandoned by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the last minute.

To recap, the idea of the KL Summit was born out of a trilateral pow-wow among Mahathir, Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session in New York.

The common perception of the three countries was that the Muslim world had failed to react forcefully enough to the emergent situation affecting the Kashmiri Muslims, a perception actively promoted by Pakistan.

New platform

On November 23, while announcing his decision to host the KL Summit, Mahathir said the new platform hoped to bring together Islamic leaders, scholars and clerics who would propose solutions to the many problems facing the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims.

He disclosed that dignitaries attending the summit would include Erdogan, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Imran Khan.

The role of politics in development, food security, preserving national identity and redistributing wealth were listed as other topics to be discussed, alongside the expulsion of Muslims from their homelands and the categorization of Islam as the “religion of terrorism.”

In poignant remarks, Mahathir bemoaned that no Muslim country was fully developed and that some Islamic nations were “failed states.”

He said: “Why is there this problem? There must be a reason behind this. We can only know the reason if we get the thinkers, scholars and the leaders to give their observations and viewpoints.

Also read: Malaysia summit and Pakistan’s controlled foreign policy

“Perhaps we can take that first step … to help Muslims recover their past glories, or at least to help them avoid the kind of humiliation and oppression that we see around the world today,” he added.

Importantly, Mahathir described the summit as a meeting of minds that had the “same perception of Islam and the problems faced by the Muslims.”

Regret expressed

It now turns out that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is attending the summit, but King Salman of Saudi Arabia has expressed regret that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) conference is being bypassed.

Mahathir disclosed that King Salman conveyed to him in a phone conversation that it was better that Muslim issues were discussed in a full-fledged OIC meeting. Mahathir said laconically:

“He [King Salman] wanted to tell me the reasons why he couldn’t make it. He’s afraid that something bad will happen to the Muslims. He has a different opinion from us. He feels that matters like these [Muslim issues] shouldn’t just be discussed by two or three countries, and there should be an OIC meeting, and I agreed with him.”

The testy exchange signaled that the Saudi regime sees the KL Summit as a calculated challenge to its leadership of the ummah and as an initiative about laying the foundations for an Islamic alliance.

Mahathir is outspoken, but what is less noticed is that his positions actually align closely with those of Turkey and Pakistan. These include the Palestinian question, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and the persecution of the Rohingya community in Myanmar.

According to the Malaysian news agency Bernama, the KL Summit “aims to revive Islamic civilization, deliberate [over] and find new and workable solutions for problems afflicting the Muslim world, contribute [to] the improvement of the state of affairs among Muslims and Muslim nations, and form a global network between Islamic leaders, intellectuals, scholars and thinkers.”

In sheer brainpower, Saudi Arabia cannot match such an agenda. A sense of frustration has been building up over the past decade or so among the Muslim countries that the OIC is reduced to an appendage of the Saudi foreign policies.

A much grander initiative

Saudi Arabia’s rift with Qatar, its rivalries with Iran, the brutal war in Yemen, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, etc also seriously dented Riyadh’s image in the most recent years.

Of course, the Saudis hold a big purse and that still translates as influence, but the new Islamic forum is poised to move in a direction that is progressive and far more inspiring, with plans to pursue joint projects, including, eventually, the introduction of a common currency.

Mahathir is on record that this mini-Islamic conference could turn into a much grander initiative down the road. Such optimism cannot be disregarded since a growing number of Muslim-majority countries harbor great unease over the near-term prospect of the ascendancy of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as the Saudi king and the next Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.

Saudi Arabia, anticipating the gauntlet being thrown down by Mahathir, has reacted viciously to undercut the KL Summit. It tore into the summit’s “soft underbelly” by reading the riot act to Imran Khan. The great cricket player panicked and called Mahathir to regret that he cannot attend the summit.

No doubt, it is a big insult to Mahathir’s personal prestige, but as the old adage says, beggars can’t be choosers, and Khan is left with no choice but to obey the Saudi diktat like a vassal.

With Khan staying away, Mahathir is left to host his counterparts from Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Indonesia. The fizz has gone out of the KL Summit. Nonetheless, Mahathir is not the type of person to forget and forgive. His initial reaction to Imran Khan’s cowardly behavior shows studied indifference, betraying his sense of hurt.

Pakistan is ultimately the loser here, as its credibility has been seriously dented. Imran Khan was the original promoter of the idea of the three-way axis of Turkey-Pakistan-Malaysia.

But to be fair, his modest agenda was to create an exclusive India-baiting regional forum that he could use at will, whereas Mahathir turned it into an unprecedented Islamic forum that is independent of Saudi influence. Perhaps Mahathir can only blame himself for the overreach.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan. This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute, which provided it to Asia Times.

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