Pakistan & the Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019

Co-authored with Mobeen Jafar Mir for Islamabad Policy Institute (IPI) on 13 December 2019.

The upcoming ‘Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019’ going to be held at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre (KLCC) from Dec 19-21  presents a unique and timely opportunity for Pakistan from the perspective of building alliances for support against India. The Summit, which seeks to brainstorm ‘concrete solutions’ to the Muslim world’s problems, is a special initiative of Turkish President Erdogan, his Qatari allies and Malaysia.

The idea for the Summit as well as the additional countries to invite to it was discussed by Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan on the sidelines of a ministerial-level OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) meeting in 2018. In September 2019, Imran Khan, Erdogan and Mahathir Mohamad also met on the sidelines of the UNGA and jointly discussed Kashmir for the first time. They decided that they would invite Iran, Qatar and Indonesia to the December KL Summit and also decided to create a media outlet on the model of Al-Jazeera to counter rising Islamophobia all around the world. These meetings were kept secret, so other states would not take offence. Two meetings in November, in Kuala Lumpur and Doha, also took place featuring representatives from Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan.

A 72-year-old former Malaysian civil servant, Samsudin Osman, who has also served the Malaysian Government from 1969 to 2006 and has remained Chief Secretary -the most senior bureaucratic post- to the Malaysian Government has personally delivered invitations to both Iran and Pakistan. It highlights the significance attached to the KL Summit by the participant states. Mazrzoki bin Haji Yahya Deputy FM, special envoy to both Pakistan and Iran also met Javad Zarif recently.

Mahatir had earlier tried to rope in Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, to attend the summit, but Widodo turned down the request given his close business ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Now, Vice President of Indonesia Ma’ruf Amin, who is considered religious among the political circles, is going to represent Indonesia in Kuala Lumpur.

The Summit’s agenda is multifaceted, focusing on revival of Islamic civilization, technological development in the Muslim world, countering Islamophobia and also major issues of oppression of Muslims such as Palestine and the Rohingya crisis. Notably, the conference is to discuss the Kashmir issue as well for the first time.

Given Malaysia’s invitation to Iran for attendance and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decision to shun it, the Summit is clearly emblematic of ever-progressing and evolving geostrategic bloc rivalries featuring Muslim states.

The GCC are presently lobbying Pakistan against attending it. However, after a careful assessment, it becomes clear that Pakistan stands much to gain by attending and utilizing the Summit in terms of gaining strategic partners – especially against India.

After India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) autonomy on 5 August and illegally annexed it, GCC did not back Pakistan. The UAE declared Kashmir India’s ‘internal matter’ and visits by UAE and Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministers to Pakistan in September witnessed no condemnation of India either. In more practical contexts, the GCC in the same month secured several large investment deals with India and Bahrain and the UAE also conferred their highest national civil awards to Indian Prime Minister Modi.

Iran, whose ties with India have historically been based on purely economic relations, has lost its position as a major oil supplier to India that  replaced it with its rival GCC in this aspect and adhered to unilateral US sanctions on Iran. Leading Iranian state clerics since 5 August have condemned India’s actions in Kashmir as a form of oppression of Muslims.  Additionally, the Iranian Parliament (Majlis e Shura) passed a resolution condemning Indian oppression in Kashmir and declaring support for Kashmir the responsibility of the global Muslim Ummah.

Notably, Iran’s Ambassador to India in September expressed Iran’s interest in building an LNG pipeline along CPEC to China due to India’s adherence to US sanctions on Iran.

Similarly, Iran’s enemy Israel recently invited India to join a proposed Israel-GCC trade corridor connecting the Mediterranean to the Gulf.

Turkey’s Erdogan also raised Kashmir as an international issue, decrying India’s draconian lockdown and urging the UN to resolve the dispute. India in return sought to punish Turkey for its Kashmir stance, joining the GCC and Israel in condemning Turkey’s operation in October against the Kurdish PKK terrorist group in Syria. India also cancelled a Turkish firm from defence-related business in India.

Given the pro-India stance of the GCC on the Kashmir dispute, which is of great importance to Pakistan strategically and ideologically, Pakistan should not be sensitive to GCC demands that it not develop a closer rapport with states with a better stance on Kashmir.

Additionally, given the increasing convergence in the policies of Turkey, Qatar and Iran in recent times due to the GCC and Israel’s joint hostility to them, Pakistan stands the chance of becoming part of a coherent bloc of Islamic powers.

Turkey and its close ally Qatar – whose ties are based on mutual support for the transnational Sunni Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement – are rivals of the GCC who see Erdogan as a threat to their influence in the Sunni world. The GCC have historically ardently opposed the Brotherhood, having cooperated with Israel to depose the Muslim Brotherhood government in a coup in Egypt in 2013.

In Libya, Turkey and Qatar back the UN-recognized Government of National Accord based in Tripoli which has roots in the Brotherhood while the GCC, Egypt and Israel back General Khalifa Haftar’s ‘Libyan National Army’ which seeks to ‘purge’ Libya of the Brotherhood.

Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood has historically sustained positive ties with Iran. The Brotherhood’s offshoots in Palestine, armed movements and political groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are armed and supported by Iran to resist Israeli occupation and prevent its expansion in Gaza.

Despite differing stances over the Syrian War (2011-present), Hamas and Iran after a brief period of dispute in 2012 restored relations in 2014 while Hamas ties with Saudi deteriorate due to Saudi Arabia’s growing ties with Israel. Iran has outreached toward the GNA in Libya, forming diplomatic ties with it and is accused by the GNA’s rivals of arming it as well.

Regarding the KL Summit, Malaysia has stated that Al-Jazeera is sponsoring the event. Al-Jazeera is owned by Qatar and is pro-Muslim Brotherhood. It is a highly influential news network and this can be seen from the fact that shutting down al Jazeera was one of the numerous GCC demands made to Qatar after their embargo against it in June 2017.

This shows Malaysia’s growing alignment with Turkey, Qatar and Iran. Additionally, Malaysia has its own issues with the GCC. First, the accused of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal, Jho Low, has been granted asylum in the UAE which is seen by Malaysia as a sign of the UAE’s hostility. Malaysia also recalled its troops from Saudi Arabia last year.

Malaysia describes the KL Summit as a replacement for the OIC and expresses optimism for its growth. Upon Erdogan and Mahatir’s initiative, Iran was invited despite not having attended previous Summits held in Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur and Khartoum. Shams-ud-din Usman, the incharge of Kuala Lumpur Headquarter and 72 years old bureaucrat. Also a former chief secretary of Malaysia, the highest bureaucratic post has personally delivered invitations to both Iran and Pakistan. Mazrzoki bin Haji Yahya Deputy FM, special envoy to both Pakistan and Iran also met Javad Zarif recently.

In these circumstances, Malaysia’s alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and its state backers becomes clear.

There are also other issues on which there is a deep divide between the GCC and its rivals in Turkey, Qatar, Iran and, increasingly, Malaysia: the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ being prepared by Zionists for Palestine.

The GCC supports the ‘Deal of the Century’ proposed by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, who represents Israeli interests in the White House and desires for the GCC to financially back the Deal. The Deal is opposed by all Palestinian factions as leaked details of it confirm its unjustness and opposition to the goal of actual Palestinian statehood in any form.

Iran and Turkey oppose the Deal and Qatar due to reliance on Iran and Turkey has made no commitment toward it either. Malaysia also does not approve of the Deal.

Thus, given the pro-India, pro-Israel position of the GCC on major Islamic issues from, it is evident that Pakistan bears the GCC no moral obligation vis a vis forging alliance with GCC’s rival states. To forge such alliances is, in fact, both necessary and prudent given that many different kinds of commonalities have already become visible in the policies and interests of Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Malaysia.

It is also important to note that the GCC has little actual leverage over Pakistan. Due to huge and wasteful expenditures on policies which have yielded it no gain and only strategic losses. Billions of dollars were spent fighting in Yemen, where the Saudis and UAE utilized mostly foreign mercenaries – especially from Sudan who has now declared it is no longer sending troops to Yemen – for its ground troops and could not capture sufficient territory from the Houthis based on the north who are now stronger and can strike Saudi oil infrastructure at will.

The Jamal Khashoggi incident last year also led to Saudi Arabia’s isolation from traditional ally USA’s military-intelligence community, as the CIA openly stated that MbS ordered it.

The IMF, prior to the 17 August Houthi drone attack on a major Saudi oil field, already predicted a 7% budget deficit for Saudi Arabia. Since then, sensitive Saudi oil assets have been struck again, such as the Aramco attack on 14 September. Saudi Arabia relies excessively on oil exports for its foreign exchange reserves, its federal budget and the subsidies it provides to its populace.

Saudi Arabia is thus in a weak and unstable state which demands it focus excessively on its economy, which MbS’ ambitious ‘Vision2030’ modernization agenda seeks to diversify. The agenda demands less spending on expensive military hardware, much of which Saudi additionally needs to hire foreigners to handle in any case, and more spending on adjusting Saudi economy away from oil-reliance. This is a shift that will take a long time and requires security. With this in mind, recent posturing by Saudi indicating it desires de-escalation of tensions with Iran becomes clear as a sign of its instability.

Toward this end, Saudi Arabia due to its own lacking requires foreign labour both skilled and unskilled and is thus unlikely to ‘punish’ Pakistan by deporting Pakistani labourers or taking similar such steps.

Similarly, the UAE is known for hesitancy to back up the Saudis in their efforts to pressurize other countries and to swiftly back out of such endeavours. The UAE backed a separate Yemeni faction (the South Yemen separatists) which deposed Saudi-backed Abdurrabbuh Mansour Hadi from Aden in 2018, making it the second time the Saudi-backed candidate was deposed after the Houthis toppled his government from Sanaa in September 2014. The UAE in August also signed a maritime border cooperation pact with Iran in August despite ongoing accusations against Iran by the Saudis, Israel and the US that it was responsible for earlier attacks upon GCC shipping.

Thus, even in the scenario where Saudi attempted to use whatever means to pressure Pakistan, the UAE may well see little chance of it succeeding to pull Pakistan away from the Turkey-Iran-Qatar-Malasyia bloc and not participate.
Pakistan can, however, achieve enormous benefits out of this summit. Malaysia has expressed its desire to buy the PAC JF-17 Thunder aircrafts from Pakistan. It will dramatically boost Pakistan’s defence industry. Likewise, there are news in the air that both Turkey and Malaysia are willing to sign business investment plans with Pakistan. It would provide much-needed benefits for Pakistan’s dwindling economy.

Pakistan also has much to gather from the summit, like Turkey, Malaysia and China have repeatedly supported Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Pakistan, being on the FATF grey list, needs unwavering backing of its allies to counter Indian influence calling for Pakistan’s placement on FATF black list. Riyadh, on the other hand, has always maintained neutrality on the issue. Similarly, it is Turkey that always comes to rescue Pakistan at the platform of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG). Keeping in view these two matters of immense political significance, Pakistan should not put the KL summit on the back burner.

Though the Foreign Office has welcomed first-ever ‘Open Discu­ssion’ on the deteriorating human rights situation in India-Occupied Jammu and Kashmir by the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission, yet it is deemed too little too late by Pakistanis who are convinced that Pakistan should look towards other avenues for the solution of Kashmir issue. Public opinion in Pakistan is at large unfavourable towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have time and again maintained neutral position on Kashmir.

At the second Ministerial meeting of the Kuala Lumpur Summit, held in Doha, Foreign Minister of Pakistan Shah Mehmood Qureshi said that ‘the challenges of climate change, terrorism, governance, development and the surge in Islamaphobia warrant a comprehensive and integrated response’. The statement gives credence to the fact that the Kuala Lumpur Summit seeks to find an all-encompassing solution to the problems faced by Muslim Ummah. Pakistan can be a primary beneficiary of the initiative since it is confronting all the challenges expounded by Foreign Minister Qureshi above.

The ‘Muslim-5 Initiative’ is a laudable development given the states taking the initiative account for more than 50% of the total GDP of Muslims states, 18% of the total geographical land of the Muslim world, and more than half of the Muslim world population. The states are also rich in natural resources, like top producers of natural gas- Qatar and Iran – are a part of it. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the bloc will have a dominant say in steering the vehicle of Muslim Ummah. Pakistan, however, should make the most of benefits out of this godsend opportunity.

Pakistan, being an energy-hungry state, has always remained heavily reliant on foreign oil markets, notably from those of Gulf states. Pakistan also is increasingly dependent on naval trade owing to low border trade with its neighbours. Ongoing crisis in the Persian Gulf has raised Pakistani suspicions about the continuity of smooth passage of shipments through the Strait of Hormuz. Fortunately, the Islamic states taking part in the Kuala Lumpur Summit are located at close proximity to the strategic maritime chokepoints in the world, like the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, the Strait of Malacca and the Bosphorus. This will allay Pakistan’s concerns about the possible disruption in the maritime trade.

Pakistan has been grappling with Afghan refugees who have been flooding Pakistan in the wake of perpetuation of decades long civil-war like situation in Afghanistan. It is an opportune time since Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is heading to Geneva to attend the first-ever Global Refugee Forum (GRF) meeting this month. The Kuala Lumpur Summit envisions to play a pioneering role to deal with refugee problems in the Muslim world. Turkey, a driving force behind the summit, is also facing many threats owing to instability in Syria and pouring of incalculable refugees into its territory. Pakistan, however, is definitely going to get increasingly high benefits out of this initiative since OIC, the largest Islamic organization to address Muslim issues, has never paid any significant heed to sort out refugee crisis in the Muslim world.

India has been diverting attention of the world from the ongoing grave human rights violations in Indian Held Kashmir under the pretext of emanating terrorism from Pakistan. Lately, India and Japan in their newly established diplomatic framework ‘two-plus-two dialogue’ have expressed serious concerns about the threats posed to regional peace by terrorists operating from Pakistani soil. These Indian tactics have exceedingly turned down plights of the Kashmiris by stifling their voices and strangulating their desires for freedom from brutal Indian forces maintaining the siege of the Valley for around four months now. It also has given birth to Islamophobia all around the world. The Kuala Lumpur Summit, with its aim to deal with rising Islamophobia around the world, will surely address these misgivings regarding Pakistan while countering Islamophobia simultaneously.

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