02 Jan 2020
recently hosted the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Summit – an inaugural gathering of Muslim
countries from Dec 19 to 21 last year.
by Malaysia, the conference was attended by leaders from Iran, Qatar and
Turkey, and sought to foster closer cooperation among Muslim countries in the
hope of scouring new and practical solutions to address challenges facing the
Islamic world. Displacing Saudi Arabia?
event was not without challenges, complicated by the geopolitical dynamics
among the Arab countries.
Arabia, which dominates the multilateral Organisation of Islamic Cooperation
(OIC), felt affronted by what it perceived as a challenge to its regional and
international leadership of the Muslim-Arab world, and an attempt to build an
alternative bloc to the OIC that could prove a countervailing force to Saudi
Arabia’s political and diplomatic influence, which had to be met with a swift
this snub arose from Malaysia’s initial reluctance to extend invitations to
Saudi and its Gulf allies, while it proactively engaged Turkey, Qatar, Iran and
Pakistan, countries which have been at loggerheads with Saudi Arabia in recent
years for a range of reasons.
reality could not be further from the truth. As far Malaysia was concerned, the
mini-lateral KL Summit was meant to complement rather than compete or replace
welcome address at the summit on Dec 19, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir
Mohamad said that almost all Muslim nations had been invited to participate in
the summit albeit at different levels.
summit’s objectives itself was “not to discuss about religion but instead the
state of affairs in the Muslim world”, which was in “state of crisis, he added.
Dr Mahathir also highlighted the importance of Muslim countries understanding
the factors fuelling the rise in Islamaphobia and how best to address these
this, the Saudis expressed concerns that the summit was not the right platform
to discuss the matters of the world’s 1.75 billion Muslims. King Salman of
Saudi Arabia reaffirmed in a phone call with Mahathir that such cases should
only be discussed through the OIC.
signs to suggest that the Saudis may have exerted diplomatic pressure on some
of its allies, notably Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan who was initially
scheduled to attend but later decided to skip the event, though they have
refuted such claims. Despite being one of the initial three architects of the
summit, Pakistan eventually did not even send a ministerial-level
Qatar and Iran, represented by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Emir Sheikh
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and President Hassan Rouhani at the summit, have also
had difficult relations with the Saudis owing to a range of religious and
geopolitical issues – including the civil war in Yemen.
In The Muslim World
have spurred Mahathir to push for such a conference?
decades, the ruling Barisan Nasional government had capitalised on affairs in
the Muslim world to burnish its Islamic credentials in foreign policy moves
among the majority Malay-Muslim electorate, thereby boosting its legitimacy.
place against a backdrop of fierce competition between the United Malays
National Organisation (UMNO), the largest component of the BN, and the
Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) for the hearts and souls of the Malay
stands, the PH governing coalition is facing intense competition from the
opposition BN to amass Malay support, and a new threat in the form of an
UMNO-PAS pact after losing four by-elections since the 2018 General Election.
It has thus
become even more important for the PH to demonstrate to the Malays that it is
not only committed to safeguarding Malay rights in-country, but also able to
serve as a protector of Islam and champion the interests of the global Islamic
It would be
little surprise if the 94-year-old Mahathir, known for his outspokenness on
Palestine, Israel and Jerusalem, had decided that the Kuala Lumpur Summit
provided a useful vehicle to achieve these domestic political ends.
recently, Mahathir has spoken up on the plight of the Rohingyas, opposed
India’s new citizenship law which is widely believed to exclude Muslims, and
supported Pakistan’s stand against India’s revocation of Article 370 which
grants autonomy to India-administered Kashmir.
this foreign policy shift might have also involved growing ties with Pakistan
and Turkey, and away from Saudi Arabia, which former Prime Minister Najib Razak
had cosied up to, to propose setting up an English-language television channel
focused on combating Islamophobia and hosted the KL Summit.
such foreign policy moves might have been engineered with domestic political
considerations in mind, given the imperative PH faces in winning back the Malay
Malaysia has neither the influence to bring together countries in the divided
Muslim world nor can it expect Arab leaders to take their cue from them.
continued reluctance to deport popular but divisive preacher Zakir Naik to
India has also thrown Malaysia into an unwanted spotlight. While Mahathir has
continued to denounce the cleric, urged him to avoid stirring up racial
sentiments and highlighted the rule of law, he had ultimately allowed Zakir to
stay on the basis that “he might be killed if he is sent back”.
Mahathir remains a pragmatic leader. He has refrained from criticising Beijing
on the Xinjiang/Uyghur issue as China is a key trading partner and a leading
investor in Malaysia. “It is better ... not to antagonise China too much
because China is beneficial for us,” he said in a media interview in September.
when India threatened to boycott Malaysia’s palm oil exports over Mahathir’s
comments that India had “invaded and occupied Kashmir”, Mahathir reined in
of the KL Summit came hot on the heels of concerns over leadership succession
from Mahathir to his heir-apparent, Anwar Ibrahim, with talk that Mahathir may
have felt the need to shore up his own religious credentials to stem calls for
The fact of
the matter is that Anwar is widely seen as a pious Muslim leader even relative
to Mahathir, having made his name as a student leader in an Islamic youth
movement in his younger days.
Mahathir was unequivocally the face of Malaysia for the summit, even as Anwar
hosted many visiting dignitaries. Mahathir had projected himself as an
international leader of the Muslim world with a point of view about common
challenges and flashpoints in the region.
though the Summit had seen a lower level of attendance from some countries and
had met with concerns from parts of the Muslim world, there are plans for this
to be an annual event renamed as the Perdana Dialogue.
ahead, some aspects of foreign policy could be driven by domestic politics in
Malaysia, particularly Malaysia’s stances on issues relating to the larger
UMNO and PAS were bent on winning over the Malay-Muslim ground, we are also
likely to witness struggles between PH’s Malay-majority parties and the UMNO-PAS
alliance for the Malay ground between now and the next general election, which
is slated to take place in 2023.
Headline: Malaysia wades into tricky waters with Kuala Lumpur Summit
Source: The Channel News Asia