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.
Farah N. Jan is an International Relations Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on interstate rivalries and alliances, the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation, and the security politics of South Asia and the Middle East. She is currently working on a book project examining the defense and strategic dimensions of Pakistan - Saudi Arabia alliance. Her dissertation, Adversarial Peace: The persistence of nuclear rivalries, examined the impact of nuclear weapons on strategic rivalries. Her writing has appeared in a range of scholarly and policy-relevant publications, including Foreign Policy, National Interest, Arab News, and Asraq Al-Awsat. She received her PhD in Political Science and an MS in Global Affairs from Rutgers University.
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any a peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.
The Russian conquest of Avdiivka is unlikely to alter the war’s basic realities. Although delays in the delivery of aid to Ukraine have raised Russian hopes, no meaningful changes on the battlefield are near. The Russians cannot drive to Kyiv; the Ukrainians cannot eject the invaders.
The first phase of the war in Ukraine is drawing to a close. Both sides are coming closer to acknowledging what has been clear to the rest of the world for quite some time: the current stalemate is unlikely to be broken in any significant way. This round of the war is going to end more-or-less along the current front lines.
The actions taken in the next few years will determine whether or not there will be a round two.
The war’s end state is now clear, even if it may take a bit more time for the combatants to accept it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion has failed, but Ukraine cannot return to the status quo ante. The only questions that remain concern the shape of the peace to come, and how best to avoid a second act in this pointless tragedy.
Loud voices in the West are already suggestingthatthe best way to avoid round two is for NATO to expand again, and bring Ukraine into the alliance. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, on Kyiv's membership to the alliance, said over the weekend, "Ukraine is now closer to NATO than ever before...it is not a question of if, but of when."
He said Nato was helping Kyiv to make its forces “more and more interoperable” with the defence alliance and would open a joint training and analysis centre in Poland. “Ukraine will join Nato. It is not a question of if, but of when,” he insisted.
If this is the path the alliance follows, future fighting is almost assured. One side’s deterrent is often the other’s provocation.
NATO expansion was a necessary condition for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It was not sufficient, since Putin has agency and made a catastrophically bad choice, but it was necessary. Those in the West who blame the United States for the war are as myopic as those who claim that Western policies had nothing to do with it. Putin remains a cold warrior at heart, and talked about NATO obsessively in the years leading up to the invasion.
Expanding NATO further would again provide the necessary conditions for tension and conflict. Russia will not stand by while Ukraine joins the enemy camp. A second invasion – perhaps before Ukraine formally joined the alliance, or perhaps afterwards – would be extremely likely. Those who suggest that deterrence would keep the Russians in check should listen to the rambling interview Putin just gave to Tucker Carlson. Ukraine simply matters more to the Russians than it does to us. Putin would calculate that no American president would be willing to sacrifice New York for Kyiv.
Another solution exists, one that might well assure Kyiv’s security without exacerbating Russian paranoia. Ukraine should be “Finlandized.”
During the Cold War, Finland was essentially a neutral country. It took no official positions on the pressing issues of the day, and was careful not to criticize the Soviet Union. Leaders in Helsinki made it clear to those in Moscow that they had no desire to join the West. They resisted pressure to join both NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and discouraged their citizens from openly criticizing either side. Finland avoided the Soviet embrace by making it clear that it would avoid the West as well.
“Finlandization” was a forced neutrality. The term was often used in a pejorative sense during the Cold War, as a warning about what could happen to the rest of Europe if the United States was not careful. What was often overlooked at the time was just how well Finlandization worked out for the people of Finland, who managed to stay free and outside of the various Cold War crises. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that today Finns consistently rank among the world’s happiest people.
Finlandization was a recognition of geopolitical reality, and it was the best choice for a small nation with the misfortune to lie next to a superpower. Switzerland followed a similar path during the 1930s. Like the Finns, the Swiss realized that their independence and very survival depended on avoiding any perception of flirtation with the enemies of their neighbor.
Ukraine will soon find itself in a similar situation, beside an aggressive and unpredictable great power. It should make the same choice, and the United States should help it do so.
A Finlandized Ukraine would not be allowed to join the West, but neither would it come under Russia’s thumb. It would be neutral, a buffer zone between NATO and Russia, an independent state that would allow hawkish Russians to imagine that it is still part of their country. The Ukrainian people would be neutral, and therefore safe.
If Washington were to lead an effort to emphasize the enduring neutrality of Ukraine, to Finlandize it, Russia’s paranoia could be reassured rather than provoked. Finlandizing Ukraine would be the best outcome for all involved, including for the Ukrainian people. The disappointment in being excluded from NATO would be tempered by the knowledge that it puts them on their best path to peace and stability. And it would be the best way to avoid Ukrainian War Two.