‘Game changer’ KL Summit marks end of Saudi stranglehold on Muslim world

By hosting the KL Summit in defiance of Saudi pressure, Dr Mahathir Mohamad appears keen to tap the technological, diplomatic and financial strength of Iran, Turkey and Qatar.

KUALA LUMPUR: The recent Kuala Lumpur summit of Islamic nations attended by three important heads of state has been described as a game changer in the Muslim world’s relations with Saudi Arabia, with experts predicting a domino effect that could spell the end of the oil-rich kingdom’s theological and political grip on Muslim governments.

They say it is also Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s move to look elsewhere for faster technology transfer that would favour Malaysia, which has long depended on expensive Western technology and the caveats that come with it in the form of multi-billion dollar arms deals.

Politically, a former Malaysian diplomat who served in the Middle East said the KL Summit had “struck at the heart of a long-held myth” that forces Muslim leaders to publicly toe Riyadh’s line.

“It has essentially debunked this myth, the belief that Riyadh holds leadership over the Muslim world because it is the ‘khadimul haramain’,” the seasoned diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous, told FMT.

The “khadimul haramain” title, which means the Servant of the Two Holy Cities, has been used by successive Saudi monarchs, underlining the importance placed on control over Mecca and Medina – the focal points of the annual Muslim pilgrimages that see millions flocking to the two cities.

The KL Summit was held against the backdrop of Riyadh’s silent campaign among its allies, resulting in a no-show by most Gulf states and only low-level delegations sent by non-Arab recipients of Saudi aid.

FMT last week quoted diplomatic sources as saying that the Saudis were incensed after Mahathir’s refusal to back down amid pressure to cancel the summit, which was initially a joint effort by Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan cancelled his trip at the eleventh hour, in what well-placed sources confirmed was the result of diplomatic arm-twisting of the cash-strapped South Asian nation which has received billions of dollars in Saudi aid since Khan came to power last year.

The three heads of state who attended were among the Saudis’ staunchest enemies: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Some pro-Saudi circles in Malaysia, including those from the previous government which had openly joined in alliance with the Wahhabi state, cited this as a failure of the summit.

But seasoned Middle East watchers disagree.

Azzam Tamimi.

London-based Palestinian academic Azzam Tamimi, a vocal Saudi critic, said the KL Summit showed that key Muslim leaders had decided to “adopt policies or positions more harmonious with the sentiments expressed by their people”.

Tamimi, who heads Alhiwar TV, a pan-Arabian current affairs satellite channel critical of Saudi policies, said leaders in KL had come close to forging an alliance that counters the “Saudi-UAE-led coalition of counter revolutionary forces in the Muslim world”.

This is a possible reference to the four-year-old military pact that saw bombings in support of the pro-Saudi government in Yemen, as well as the active role of Riyadh in 2013 in toppling Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the late Mohamed Morsi.

“I admire the emir of Qatar for resisting the pressure exercised on his tiny nation from much bigger entities in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” Tamimi told FMT.

Mustafa Akyol.

Prominent Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol shared this view, saying the summit had been able to break a long anti-Shia narrative directed by the Sunni world against Iran.

“Sectarianism is a major problem in the Muslim world today, and the right way to handle it is not by building a ‘Sunni bloc’ against Iran, as some think, but rather having no blocs at all,” the US-based writer told FMT, adding however that Iran should not be spared blame either.

Akyol, who has criticised undemocratic policies by Muslim governments including Malaysia, also welcomed Mahathir’s “honest” opinion that Muslims had lost respect on the global stage.

“Let me just add that this is precisely why the much-denigrated ‘Muslim liberals’, including my humble self, are calling for the rethinking of some crucial issues within Islamic tradition.

“We do see that with a religious teaching that doesn’t respect freedom, that is bigoted and oppressive, we are only harming our religion and our societies,” said Akyol, whose lectures in Malaysia came to an abrupt end with his arrest by Jawi, the Islamic authorities in Kuala Lumpur.

Domestic factors

But the KL Summit was not detached from Malaysia’s noisy domestic politics.

For one, the choice of local speakers, believed to be handpicked by the Prime Minister’s Office, ruffled some feathers on the back of a raging debate over whether Mahathir will hand over power to Anwar Ibrahim as promised.

Some see the conference as having sidelined Anwar, despite his efforts to maintain his Islamic image by appearing at Islamic forums worldwide.

“His absence was notable, especially as the man he has always referred to as his ‘close friend’, Erdogan, was in town,” said a source.

Saudi Arabia has long claimed leadership of the Muslim world by virtue of its control over the holy city of Mecca. (Reuters pic) 

Supporters cited pictures of Anwar hosting Erdogan at a private dinner while skipping a pre-summit dinner hosted by Mahathir, calling it a testament to the Turkish strongman’s preference between the PKR leader and the veteran prime minister.

But a Turkish diplomat rubbished this theory.

“The dinner was not meant for ministers or heads of state. No state leader attended the dinner,” she told FMT.

A PKR insider said the KL Summit “might not be Anwar’s cup of tea”, adding that Anwar had long surrounded himself with the “salafist lobby” linked to Saudi petro-dollars.

“For decades when he was in the government, though this has changed, Anwar chose to mingle with the Gulf governments and organisations to show that he was their man in Malaysia,” said a former official of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim), a once-firebrand organisation which Anwar founded in the late 1970s.

“Anwar would prefer to be in the company of so-called progressive salafists, especially in the wake of the fallout between the Saudis and Qatar,” he added.

But more than anything, he said, the KL Summit was essentially Mahathir’s way of making a “clean break” from past pro-Saudi policies.

“He cannot continue bashing the West and still pay loyalty to the very Muslim government which greases Western military might,” said the former diplomat, referring to the Saudis’ hosting of US army bases.

Economic benefits

At the conclusion of the KL Summit, Mahathir praised Iran in a rare concession from the leader of a Sunni Muslim nation.

Sources said the prime minister was aware of the backlash from conservative religionists, as well as Western-trained military top brass.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan is popular in the Muslim world despite his country’s ties with Israel. (Bernama pic)

But a military insider told FMT that many had missed the “hidden clues” in Mahathir’s closing speech where he referred to Iran’s stockpile of engineers.

He said themes such as Muslim unity, Islamophobia and even the gold dinar were “just wall decorations”, adding that Mahathir was after something bigger.

He said Mahathir was aware of Iran’s advanced technology, something Western and Israeli critics of the Islamic republic also admitted to when accusing it of nuclear ambitions.

Iran has a vibrant domestic industry for its military and aviation needs, and boasts what is likely the most number of universities specialising in technological research, as well as more than 30 science and technology parks nationwide.

“Mahathir is aware of this strength, and he is 100 steps ahead of other Muslim leaders in realising its potential domestic benefits,” said a military insider.

He also dismissed fears that Mahathir’s “tough talk” against the US would backfire economically.

“Strategically, the US would need us no matter what in its efforts to counter China. This is why it sponsored sophisticated military equipment such as the Coastal Surveillance Radars and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, with all maintenance and expert training provided free.

“But these do not benefit Malaysia economically. So Mahathir is actually looking for a faster technological transfer, something he feels Malaysia will not get from the West. This is where Turkey and Iran come in,” the source said.

Echoing this, the former diplomat said Turkey, Iran and Qatar had strengths unlike those of any other Muslim nation.

“Turkey has diplomatic muscle in the Muslim world. How else can you host an Israeli embassy, and yet become very popular in the Muslim world?

“Qatar, meanwhile, is ready to buy more allies with its enormous wealth and investments worldwide,” he added.

Zafar Bangash.

Zafar Bangash, who heads Canada-based Muslim world think tank Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, agrees.

He said the four key nations at the KL Summit had their individual strengths.

“The four carry much weight both economically (Qatar and Malaysia), as well as militarily (Turkey and Iran). This has raised hopes among Muslims that perhaps some Muslim countries are getting their act together to address some of the burning issues in earnest,” he told FMT.

As the dust settles on the KL Summit, it is still too early to tell how the Saudis will react.

But for now, the mood has been set with the coming together of forces who are not ready to take instructions from the “khadimul haramain”.