KUALA LUMPUR: Dr Mahathir Mohamad has come under pressure from Saudi Arabia for hosting a gathering of Muslim leaders which Riyadh sees as efforts to counter the pro-Washington alliance it has forged for the last three years, FMT has learnt through conversations with diplomatic sources familiar with the Kuala Lumpur Summit that begins today.
FMT has also learnt that Saudi Arabia’s anger stems from the participation of Qatar and Iran, Riyadh’s staunchest enemies in the Middle East.
“Saudi Arabia is already not happy with Malaysia’s decision to quit the military alliance against Yemen and to cancel the King Salman centre.
“So this gathering adds insult to injury,” said a senior diplomat, referring to Putrajaya’s decision to cancel plans to build the Saudi-backed King Salman Centre for International Peace (KSCIP) just three months after Pakatan Harapan came to power.
The government had also announced that it was quitting a Saudi-led military alliance blamed for carrying out bombing campaigns in Yemen.
But even before the summit began, pressure from Saudi Arabia – which wields great power over Muslim governments including through lucrative aid as well as its control of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, which allows it to determine the annual haj quota – had forced dozens of Muslim heads of state to stay away.
A much anticipated appearance by Pakistan cricket star-turned prime minister Imran Khan was also cancelled at the eleventh hour, a move widely seen as the result of pressure from Saudi Arabia, one of the biggest aid givers for Pakistan’s tattered economy.
Last year, Riyadh agreed to a US$6 billion package, half of which includes a deferment of payments for oil exports to Pakistan, following Imran’s visit to the kingdom.
Another key absentee is Indonesian President Joko Widodo, despite his being the most populous Muslim nation.
Pakistan’s influential English daily Dawn quoted its foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi as saying that Imran had sought to play middleman to convince Riyadh to participate in the KL summit, amid Saudi Arabia’s insistence on sticking to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation channel.
The paper said if Imran failed to “bridge the gap between Riyadh and Kuala Lumpur”, he would not attend the summit.
Mahathir however denied that Saudi pressure had anything to do with Imran’s sudden decision, saying instead that “he may have other issues”.
“With Imran’s absence, only three key heads of state, out of the 56 who were invited, will participate in the summit’s opening tomorrow,” the same source told FMT.
The three heads of state are Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“Qatar, Iran and Turkey – these three countries are all in the Saudis’ bad books,” the source said.
Erdogan arrived today, while Rouhani arrived yesterday. The Iranian leader was greeted on arrival by Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu.
The source also told FMT that the choice of Mohamad as the person tasked with welcoming the Iranian leader was “interesting”.
He said Mohamad had ruffled feathers among some Muslim ministers in the Cabinet when he visited Iran earlier this year.
Pictures of the Amanah leader praying behind a Shia imam also led to a volley of condemnation among followers of Perlis mufti Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, whose Islamic interpretations are seen as following those of the Saudi-Salafi line.
“Putrajaya’s, but more importantly Mahathir’s, message to critics of the summit is that it is coming out of a sectarian narrative that has long defined Malaysia’s Islamic narrative, especially in its relationship with other Muslim countries.
“It is a brave move, but how the conservative Muslims in the top echelons of the government will view it remains to be seen,” said the source.