On Tuesday, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi confirmed that neither he nor Prime Minister Imran Khan would participate in the 2019 Kuala Lumpur Summit (KL Summit).
The event is underway from 18-21 December involving several Muslim countries as participating nations including Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Indonesia. While Pakistan cites ‘neutrality‘ as a pretext for pulling out of the summit at the last moment, reports suggest otherwise.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Qureshi said that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates were ‘concerned’ that KL Summit could cause a “division in Ummah“. Moreover, according to Qureshi, both powerful Arab Gulf states viewed KL Summit as a parallel competitor to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The spectacular about-face by Pakistan only strengthens the long-held beliefs among many geopolitical analysts that Islamabad’s foreign policy, especially regarding relations with Muslim states, is influenced by the two strongest members of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Both countries, especially the UAE, have past resentments against Pakistan for keeping out of the geosectarian quagmire in Yemen.
With regard to the KL Summit, the Saudi leadership reportedly insists that matters of the Ummah should be discussed through OIC only, despite Turkey and Malaysia’s leadership expressing frustration at the OIC’s inability to resolve the Muslim community’s long-standing issues.
The 2019 KL Summit, its fifth edition so far, is neither a political grouping of Muslim countries nor does it have any institutional bearing to influence foreign policy discourse unlike the OIC or GCC. It is merely a platform hosted by the Malaysian government enabling leaders from the Muslim world to discuss issues affecting the Muslim world in general. While ‘Peace, Security & Defence’ are among the seven pillars of discussions in KL Summit, the overall objective is to foster networking among leaders of Muslim countries across the world, not just a select grouping of invited countries. In fact, Malaysia had sent invitations to all 57 member states of the OIC.
Ironically, it was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan himself who proposed a ‘strategic alliance’ against Islamophobia involving Pakistan, Malaysia and Turkey. He discussed the idea with his Malaysian counterpart Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a trilateral meeting on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
Following this abrupt withdrawal, the Malaysian government found itself in an embarrassing situation. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had to personally clarify that KL Summit is not meant to isolate or discriminate against any country. While Islamabad feels it may have exhibited ‘maturity’ in trying to balance relations within the Muslim blocs, it has in fact committed a strategic blunder of multi-farious consequences.
In the near future, Pakistan risks losing critical support to bail out unfavourable decisions from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Apart from China, it was Turkey and Malaysia who surprised India by announcing not to support a blacklist against Pakistan. Though it isn’t likely for Turkish and Malaysian leadership to let a single incident dent bilateral relations, the international humiliation triggered by Pakistan’s haphazard foreign posturing has the potential to discourage future support, at least overtly.
Both Ankara and Kuala Lumpur have already risked spoiling relations with New Delhi following the usurpation of Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir whereas Arab Gulf countries maintained criminal silence rather than denouncing the Hindutva regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. What Pakistan gains by succumbing to unwarranted pressure from the Arab Gulf countries therefore, is beyond comprehensible.
Doha has reasons to feel awkward too. Earlier this month, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister visited Qatar to participate in the KL Summit Ministerial in which he assured of all-out support to the KL Summit.
In the context of an evolving Indo-Pacific Strategy emplacing India as the pivot, Pakistan needs reliable partners in the Pacific region. Sooner or later, Pakistan will need to come out of the shadows and make its presence felt in the Pacific, at least through enhanced port visits to Malaysia and Indonesia. On account of being the largest exporter in ASEAN, Malaysia enjoys considerable influence in the forum’s policymaking. This influence is essential to ensure that India does not manipulate ASEAN to its geostrategic advantage.
Furthermore, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an important binding factor between Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia. Qatar also stands to benefit from BRI and Iran has already submitted a 25-year roadmap for comprehensive strategic cooperation with China.
Broadly speaking, the geostrategic futures of key KL Summit member states are tied together to a common destiny under Beijing’s patronage. In this context, Pakistan should ideally refrain from spontaneous commitments and policy reversals before it risks denting bilateral relations which could further impact multi-lateral harmony.
It is clear that these distasteful developments bearing strategic ramifications resulted from the absence of well-thought-out foreign policy advice as also uncalibrated policymaking. For Pakistan’s Foreign Office, a comprehensive introspection is the need of time to avoid similar blunders in the future.
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