The Failed Pursuit of Unity in the Muslim World

The Muslim world is currently going through significant power shifts, and new players are competing to be the rightful leader of the Ummah (Muslim community). The Muslim world is gradually transitioning towards a multipolar system where power is diffused from Saudi Arabia as the key player, to Turkey. The transition is a result of Ankara’s push to play a more significant role in the complex multidimensional Muslim world, whereas the Saudi-led system has failed to address issues of long-standing conflicts, Islamophobia, and the mounting outrage over the plight of Muslims in Xinjing and Kashmir.

Last month, leaders from 52 Muslim countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to form a new Muslim alliance with the top priority of addressing the challenge of Islamophobia. The inaugural conference was titled: “The Role of Development in Achieving National Security,” with the critical objective of unifying the Muslim world and creating a platform for cooperation. However, the most influential Muslim state, Saudi Arabia, was not invited and kept out of the forum. King Salman, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Islam, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman did not receive an invitation to the KL summit. Adding to this sensitive situation, two of the Kingdom’s principal adversaries — Qatar and Iran — were on the guest list and participated in the summit.

The question is, why was Saudi Arabia not invited to the summit? The KL forum is an attempt to create a new power structure in the Muslim world, challenging the current power balance with Saudi Arabia as the hegemon. The new alliance is symptomatic of the ambitions of Turkey, and the apathy of Saudi Arabia manifested in the ineffectiveness of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Hence, the changing regional contests and the resurfacing of new power players are striving to transform the pre-established Saudi-led order exemplified by the OIC.

The architects of this new alliance are Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammed in coordination with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both leaders are striving to replace the existing power structure in the Muslim world with a platform that is not influenced by the oil-rich Gulf states. Meanwhile, in Riyadh, the KL summit is regarded as a threat to the Saudi-led OIC and has pressured key allies into not participating. Perhaps the new Islamic bloc supplants the OIC and, in turn, reduces Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region.

The OIC, formed in 1969, was in response to the attack on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The organization is the second largest international body after the United Nations, comprised of fifty-seven states. The mission of the OIC is to protect the interests of Muslims around the world. However, the OIC has not been effective in making significant strides in improving relations between Muslim states. Instead, powerful states pushed their political agendas through the OIC platform.

The Deep Divisions in the Middle East

By snubbing Riyadh, the KL summit is doing the opposite of its mission; instead of creating unity, it further solidifies the deep political and ideological divisions between the major power players like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar. The Turkey-Malaysia bloc indicates the formation of new alliances resulting in a multipolar Muslim world – with power centers in Ankara, Riyadh, and Tehran. While Turkey, under Erdogan, has aimed to rejuvenate the glory of the Ottoman empire and aspired to replace the contemporary hegemon of the Muslim world — Saudi Arabia. 

Following the failed coup of 2016, Turkey has adopted an aggressive foreign policy resulting in strategic reorientation from the West towards the Muslim world. Erdogan’s distrust of NATO allies and his ambition of being the leader of the Muslim world is one of the primary reasons for the pivot. While Turkey established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1932, both remained disinterested in expanding ties due to Turkey’s secular stance. Relations warmed for a short period after Erdogan’s accession to power in 2002 but then took a sharp turn around 2009 as a consequence of Ankara’s support for the advocates of political Islam and its backing of revolutions in the Middle East. More recently, the rift further intensified after the Jamal Khashoggi incident in Istanbul and the slow disclosure of the murder details by the Turkish government to put international pressure on Saudi Arabia and weaken its position in the Muslim world.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are strategic rivals with positional and ideational dimensions. Each is competing for influence and prestige while maximizing their political and economic gains along with spreading their theocratical version of Islam. Many in the West ignore the ideological differences in the Muslim world and take a reductionist approach by focusing on the Shiite and Sunni divide between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, theological divisions within Sunnis have dominated politics within the Muslim world for an extended period; with Wahabism/Salafism dominating Saudi Arabia while Erdogan’s Turkey is seen as the staunch supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Additionally, in recent years, we see traditional alliances shifts away from Saudi Arabia based on ideological differences, with Qatar as the primary example of such a trend. Moreover, Turkey and Iran have been quick to grab Saudi allies and regional interests. As it was evident, after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) boycott of Qatar, Turkey sided with Doha and stood up to Saudi Arabia by providing security assistance and sending troops to Qatar. Iran was also quick to offer any assistance to Doha and provided access to Iranian airspace and shipping routes to circumvent the GCC blockade. Regional friction in the GCC has strengthened Turkey and Iran’s position and, at the same time, reduced the Kingdom’s influence.

For the time being, Saudi Arabia can count on Pakistan to stand by its side. However, Pakistan’s central foreign policy dilemma in the Muslim world has been how to balance its alliance with Saudi Arabia while expanding its economic ties with Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. The exclusion of Saudi Arabia from the KL summit forced Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan to cancel his trip to Malaysia. Indeed, when it comes to taking sides, Islamabad has repeatedly aligned with Riyadh, a pattern that has continued for seven decades. However, the Kingdom has yet to reciprocate by taking a stand on the current Kashmir crisis. Pakistan’s position of siding with Saudi Arabia has the potential of damaging its relationship with Turkey and Malaysia. With the absence of the two vital Muslim heavyweights, the summit lacks credibility.

The Multipolar Muslim World

The Muslim world is split. Given the deep-rooted ideological and political divisions between the key players, it is difficult to envision the new Islamic bloc creating harmony. Although the underlying logic behind the formulation of this summit is to reduce tensions and shift the focus toward development, that is not very easy when the inaugural summit is selective and not inclusive. The summit, in short, further demonstrates the discord and divisions that have afflicted the Muslim world.

Moreover, it is apparent that beneath the verbal façade is an emptiness that is similar to that of OIC. When it comes to religious and political persecution of Muslims, from the Uighur’s predicament in Xinjiang to the Kashmiri struggle, most of the participants of the new alliance remain silent. They have all prioritized their economic relationship with China and India and steered clear of discussing issues that could bring forth Beijing or New Delhi’s ire. Finally, the resurgence of Turkey as a significant power player with the ambition of taking over the pre-established order is pushing for a fundamental transformation of the geopolitics of the Muslim world and transforming it into a multipolar system.