The December 2019 Kuala Lumpur summit that convened in the Malaysian capital ostensibly aimed to bring together like-minded Muslim-majority states to address issues affecting Muslims worldwide. However, the summit was shaken by last-minute withdrawals and stiff opposition from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and Saudi Arabia, both of which perceived the Malaysian initiative as a challenge to their symbolic status in the Muslim world. Ultimately, the summit still ended up pushing the OIC and the Gulf Arab states to take a stronger stand on Muslim issues, laying the foundation for a possible resurgence of transnational Muslim solidarity.
A Challenge to Saudi Arabia and the OIC
The Kuala Lumpur summit originated out of frustration with the apathetic reaction that India’s controversial move in August 2019 on Jammu and Kashmir elicited across Muslim-majority countries. India’s Hindu nationalist government rescinded article 370 of the Indian Constitution, stripping the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status and turning over its administration to the union government. Notably, this implied that an earlier law that prevented nonresidents from acquiring property in the province was no longer in effect, fueling fears that the government may attempt to alter the province’s demographic composition by encouraging the influx of Hindus. The move prompted angry protests, and in response the government imposed a security lockdown in the province. Elected officials were detained, and thousands of people were arrested while a communications blackout severed the province’s internet connection.
Yet, most Muslim-majority states were slow to react. While the OIC – based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – protested India’s move, member states in the Gulf region, whose relations with New Delhi have improved dramatically in recent years, took a more conciliatory approach on the bilateral level. In August 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received the Order of Zayed in Abu Dhabi and became the first Indian leader to visit Bahrain. In October, he appeared in Riyadh as a guest of honor at the Future Investment Initiative.
Meanwhile, Pakistan, Turkey, and Malaysia launched a verbal assault against India at the U.N. General Assembly in September. Following discussions in New York, on November 21 Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad declared that his country would host the Kuala Lumpur summit in December to coordinate a collective response to issues facing Muslims worldwide. The leaders of Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and Qatar would be in attendance, he announced.
The Malaysian proposal proved controversial, since the grouping included prominent state supporters of political Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, among others, are deeply hostile. Mahathir’s initiative also appeared as a challenge to the OIC, which, since 1969, has acted as the traditional forum for its 57 members to voice positions on issues affecting Muslims worldwide.
The Constraints of Realpolitik
However, the leaders of Indonesia and Pakistan – the world’s two most populous Muslim-majority countries – made a U-turn, dealing a blow to the Malaysian initiative. Indonesian Vice President Maruf Amin withdrew at the last minute, citing exhaustion. Indonesian media reported that Jakarta in fact wished to avoid splitting the Muslim world, a realistic prospect if it were to endorse a platform parallel to the OIC. Moreover, Indonesia may have also been keen on maintaining positive momentum in ties with Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz had visited Indonesia twice, in 2014 and 2017, pledging to invest $6.7 billion and signing the two countries’ first defense cooperation agreement.
Given the summit’s expected focus on Kashmir, Pakistan’s withdrawal came as an even greater shock. In March 2019, Prime Minister Imran Khan surprisingly praised Mahathir along with Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as leaders who stood out for championing global Muslim causes. In the aftermath of India’s move on Kashmir, Pakistan also felt indebted to Malaysia and Turkey for their support on Kashmir at the United Nations.
At the same time, Pakistan has long-standing strategic ties with the Gulf Arab states. In 2018, Pakistan deployed troops along Saudi Arabia’s southern border with Yemen to help fend off Houthi incursions. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been key financial backers of Pakistan. In January 2019, they each loaned Pakistan $1 billion to help Islamabad avert financial crisis. The following month, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged $20 billion in investments, including plans to build Pakistan’s largest oil refinery in the coastal province of Gwadar.
At the end of the day, Pakistan’s military appears to have favored relations with the Gulf Arab states over attending the Malaysian summit. Khan’s visit to Riyadh on December 14 coincided with a trip by the chief of staff of Pakistan’s army to Abu Dhabi, indicating close coordination between the government and the military on the decision to skip the summit.
Geopolitical and economic factors also weighed heavily on the summit’s four remaining participants. Given the large demographic presence of Indians living in Qatar and China’s economic clout, Doha, for instance, has refrained from criticizing either. Malaysia, Turkey, and Iran have remained silent on the plight of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. In September, Mahathir explained that China – Malaysia’s largest trading partner – was “too ‘powerful’ to censure” concerning the Uighurs. He therefore argued for the need to “find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us,” he confessed.
A Resurgence of Transnational Muslim Solidarity?
Nevertheless, Pakistan has leveraged its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to raise the profile of the Kashmir issue at the OIC. Returning the favor to Pakistan, the Saudi foreign minister and the crown prince of Abu Dhabi have in recent weeks flown to Islamabad, while Riyadh has reportedly agreed to hold a meeting of the OIC on Kashmir in April. To India’s chagrin, the OIC meanwhile has expressed concern over the new Citizenship Amendment Act, which grants citizenship to members of six religious communities who fled Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh but excludes Muslims; this means that Muslims unable to prove their status face the prospect of being rendered stateless. The OIC also criticized the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Hindu claim over the disputed Masjid-Mandir case in Ayodhya. This refers to the Hindu belief that the site of the 16th century Babri Mosque was the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. In 1992, Hindu zealots destroyed the mosque to erect a temple in its place. Accordingly, the OIC called on India to “ensure the safety of the Muslim minority and the protection of Islamic holy places.”
Meanwhile, popular pressure in the Gulf Arab states to take a more vocal stand on the plight of Muslims has increased. At the opening session of the Kuwaiti Parliament on December 25, 2019, 27 members of parliament petitioned the newly formed government to express solidarity with Muslims in China and India. On January 2, Bahrain’s Council of Representatives issued a statement describing India’s Citizenship Amendment Act as discriminatory and urging “the international community to … save the lives of innocent Uighur Muslims” in China, earning praise from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The contest among Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia over the symbolic leadership of the Muslim world places a heavier burden on these states to appear as champions of Muslim causes. Despite failing to achieve its immediate objective, the Kuala Lumpur summit has galvanized a stronger response by the OIC and the Gulf Arab states on issues affecting Muslims in India and, to a lesser extent, China.