Last week, dozens of world leaders, intellectuals and scholars around the world attended the Kuala Lumpur Summit (KLS) to discuss issues facing the Muslim world (ummah) ranging from Islamophobia, poverty and sanctions to persecution in China and India.

Instead Of Bringing Muslims Nations Together The Summit Highlighted Their Rifts

Despite its lofty objectives, the summit ended up exposing a major rift between Muslim countries. The attendance of one bloc⁠—Qatar, Iran, Turkey⁠—and absence of the other⁠—UAE, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Bahrain⁠—followed by the trading of barbs between the leaders of both sides took center stage and took attention away from the objective of the meeting.

KLS was first conceived by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad, Pakistan’s leader Imran Khan and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of United Nations General Assembly meeting this year. The plan was to broadcast and examine challenges faced by Muslims across the world, especially their persecution at the hands of India and China in Kashmir and Xinjiang, respectively. 

Why The Split Occurred

PM Mohammad’s invitation to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani irked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis and Emiratis have shunned Iran and Qatar in recent years and refuse to share any stage with them. 

Saudi Arabia and Iran have long competed for influence in the Muslim world. Both have been⁠—and are currently⁠—engaged in proxy wars across the Middle East. Moreover, the Saudis consider themselves de-facto leaders of the Islamic world given the importance of Mecca and Medina in Islam. To them, participating in any Islamic forum that they did not lead was unacceptable. 

Pakistan: Stuck In The Middle

Caught in the middle of this tug-of-war between the two power blocs was Pakistan’s Imran Khan, who hastily agreed to the summit without anticipating the repercussions given Islamabad’s close ties with Riyadh. Khan decided to pull out of it at the last moment after meeting with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. 

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister said the decision was made in order to allay concerns raised by Saudi Arabia that the meeting could create a parallel bloc to rival the existing Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC is headquartered at Riyadh and is led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudis saw the KL Summit as an attempt to dislodge their dominance over the Islamic world.

Erdogan: Saudi Arabia ‘Blackmailed’ Pakistan Over The Summit

Malaysia’s Mohammad, however, denies that the summit is intended to rival the OIC. In a statement, he said “the KL Summit is not intended to create a new bloc as alluded to by some of its critics.” Mohammad said that he had clarified his position to Crown Prince bin Salman in a telephone call. But while Mohammad was careful in his response to those criticizing the summit, Turkey’s Erdogan was not. 

Lambasting the Saudi Crown Prince, Erdogan alleged that Saudi Arabia had “blackmailed” and “threatened” Pakistan. “Unfortunately, we see that Saudi Arabia pressures Pakistan. Now, there are promises that the country has given to Pakistan regarding the central bank. However, more than that, there are four million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia. They (threatened by saying that they) would send (Pakistanis) back and re-employ Bangladeshi people instead,” Erdogan said. Meanwhile, Erdogan also added that Indonesia⁠—which also decided to pull out after first agreeing to attend the meeting⁠—had also suffered from being similarly threatened by the Saudis.

Saudi Denies Erdogan’s Charges

Saudi Arabia has denied putting any pressure on Islamabad. A release issued by the Saudi embassy in Pakistan stated that, “the relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Islamic Republic of Pakistan are superior to the language of threat … and the two countries enjoy a consensus of views on most regional and international issues, especially the issues of the Islamic nation.” 

But even as Saudi Arabia denied applying any pressure on Islamabad, the infighting ended up overshadowing the summit. The world’s Muslim population⁠—around 1.8 billion across the world⁠—who had pinned their hopes on the summit to raise a voice for their rights watched with dismay as their leaders failed to agree on any way forward for their future.