In the last weeks of December 2019, leaders from five key Muslims nations — Malaysia, Turkey, Qatar, Iran, and Indonesia — met in Kuala Lumpur in a bid to enhance cooperation. However, commentators observed that competing against Saudi hegemony over the Islamic world was the actual reason for the summit. Despite denials of such claims by Mahathir Mohammed, the prime minister of Malaysia and host of the summit, several signs pointed to that conclusion.
While four of the five nations are also a member of the Saudi Arabia- and UAE-dominated Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), the inclusion of Iran – a stated enemy of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (and by extension, the OIC as well) – was particularly instructive. Over the past few decades, Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in various proxy battles with each other through their funding of either peaceful or armed entities in a bid to out-influence the other across many parts of the Islamic world — adding to regional turmoil in the process.
Moreover, Qatari attendance can be seen as a sign of defiance of the two-year-old Saudi-led blockade endorsed by the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia’s animosity toward Qatar has mainly been due to its persistence in charting its own foreign policy course, directly at odds with Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s apprehensions of political Islamists. In fact, Qatar has inclined toward and, in some cases, was indirectly responsible for regime change in the Arab world during the Arab uprisings.
This same resistance to a Saudi-led Middle East order spurred Turkey to come to the aid of the besieged Sheikdom by providing them with key agricultural goods and other trade services. Turkey, led by Recep Erdogan – who has long tried to consolidate his power by positioning himself as a champion of Muslim issues – has found adequate space to undermine Saudi Arabia by criticizing them for their unwillingness to speak on many Muslim-related issues globally.
Similarly, Indonesia and Malaysia have both begun to distance themselves from Saudi Arabia over the last year or so, due to domestic pressures in Malaysia, fear of being seen as too Wahhabi-influenced, disappointment regarding Saudi investment in Indonesia, and the poor treatment of Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. As such, this has already resulted in the withdrawal of Malaysian troops from Saudi Arabia, the cancellation of key projects such as an joint anti-terrorism center funded by Saudi Arabia and based in Malaysia, and more financial demands by Indonesia toward Saudi Arabia.
The Summit and the CAA Protests in India
To carve out its own space in the Muslim world, the Kuala Lumpur Summit was expected to engage in loud political moves. To that end, it started by taking up the issue of the Anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizenship (NRC) protests rocking India, which to date have killed at least 20 people across the nation.
The CAA promises fast track citizenship to refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist religions while excluding people of Muslim faith. Many academics, politicians, and civil society members have termed the act as unconstitutional since it excludes Muslim minority sects such as Shias, Ahmadis, and Hazaras who are routinely targeted and abused across these nations.
The CAA’s doubtful humanitarian justification notwithstanding, public outcry has erupted over proposals to update a National Register of Citizens (which was done and recalled in the state of Assam at a cost of above $200 million) across the whole of India. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has proclaimed that the NRC shall be updated to identify illegal immigrants through the verification of each resident’s documentation. The government has not been forthcoming about what constitutes sufficient documentation as yet (the exercise in Assam required papers as far back as 1971) and has stoked fears of the marginalization of those without valid papers. Muslims especially feel targeted due to the CAA’s provisions allowing people of non-Muslim faith a means to claim refugee status in the face of inadequate documentation. Thus, the combination of the CAA and NRC has been seen as an explicit attempt by the ruling party to pander to its right-wing Hindu backers and pursue a patently religious agenda.
The protests across India are the first to have seriously questioned the credibility of the right-wing BJP-led government both at home and abroad. International media houses such as the New York Times, Economic Times, BBC, Al Jazeera, and others have specifically condemned the act as Anti-Muslim or a step toward India becoming a Hindu nation. Governmental organizations in the United States as well as the Human Rights Commission of UN have also expressed concern over this act, with some even raising the specter of looming genocide. Moreover, the Indian government has failed to address this issue diplomatically, making it difficult even for its allies to avoid the fallout.
The KL Summit used this as an opportune moment to herald its arrival in the Muslim world. Providing forceful condemnations of the CAA in India, the summit ensured that India felt the sting of the criticism. This was also relevant since Malaysia and Iran have previously either spoken against Indian policies in Kashmir or allowed their citizens to protest against India over the issue.
The OIC and India-Gulf Relations
This is in stark contrast to muted or weak responses by the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). For instance, after the Pulwama bombing in April 2019, when 40 Indian security personnel were killed by a terrorist attack, India launched an aggressive counter assault into Pakistan, which was largely supported by the OIC. The OIC also allowed for Sushma Swaraj, then the Indian foreign minister, to address a meeting in February 2019 despite vehement opposition from Pakistan. More tellingly, the OIC has changed its previous stance on the sovereignty of Kashmir, going from a pro-Pakistan stance to a neutral one.
Indeed, during the shutdown of Kashmir of August 2019, when scores of human rights violations were alleged against India, the UAE chose to award Prime Minister Narendra Modi with its highest civilian award, underscoring the deepening relations between the two nations. India’s trade relations with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have increased substantially, whereas the three nations have also heightened counter terrorism cooperation.
All of this stems from India’s increasing clout as a rising economic and (to some extent) military power. The shrinkage of U.S. influence in the MENA region, alongside a growing convergence of vision regarding many strategic issues such as the Afghan conflict as well as preventing Islamist actors from gaining strength after the Arab uprising (for the Gulf states) or lending support to insurgent groups in Kashmir (for India), means that the three nations are now much closer to each other strategically.
As a corollary, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have had to balance their relationship with Pakistan, with whom they have long held strong military links In the past, due to Pakistan’s opposition to India, the two Arab nations (who have also dominated the OIC) largely took Pakistani positions. However as demonstrated above, they have now begun to lean more toward Indian interests.
Restoring the Balance
Thus the Kuala Lumpur Summit declarations will likely pan out in Pakistan’s favor. Pakistan was inclined favorably to this summit, and was all set to join them until Saudi Arabia expressed its displeasure. As such, while the country stayed away, Saudi Arabia has had to provide more political concessions in favor of Pakistan to reciprocate. One effect of this was the OIC’s condemnation of the Indian moves on the CAA as well as the recent declaration of a special meeting of the OIC to discuss the Kashmir issue after a Saudi delegation visited Pakistan. Even if that meeting was largely to pacify Pakistan and not to be held in Jeddah, the declaration was new in the current context and was due to the Kuala Lumpur Summit.
If these five nations continue to remain a voice that speaks against the oppression of Muslims globally, it is likely that the OIC will have to keep ramping up its own responses and opposition to such issues in a bid to remain relevant. A brief look at many Facebook pages either for Muslim media groups or against the CAA-NRC issue in India reveals that such declarations by these global organizations have gained significant appreciation and support among the common public.
To maintain its image as a representative of the Muslim world, and to provide some favors to Pakistan, the OIC will have to begin hedging against India. Consequently, in the beginning part of 2020, three trends will can be expected to stand out; First, the OIC will likely voice opposition to Indian stances on Muslim issues, especially if the above five nations continue to speak on those issues jointly. Second, Pakistan will likely keep using its newfound leverage with Saudi Arabia and the OIC to put India on the backfoot, especially on the Kashmir issues (among others). Third and finally, India will have to either flex a lot more diplomatic and economic muscle to appease the OIC or be forced to dampen some of its own moves domestically.
It is only right to note, then, that the new Kuala Lumpur Summit has complicated India’s relationship with the Gulf nations even if this platform doesn’t become a mainstay in the long run.
Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Senior Analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.