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International relations

Mahathir's Muslim summit turns Malaysia-Saudi ties bitter

The kingdom may cut hajj pilgrimage quotas for Malaysians in retaliation

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad delivers a speech at the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Dec. 19.   © AP

KUALA LUMPUR -- A meeting of Muslim countries hosted by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has strained Malaysia's cordial ties with Saudi Arabia and its allies, who complained the Kuala Lumpur Summit 2019 undermines the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Saudi Arabia was particularly angered by presence at the forum of some of the kingdom's fiercest critics, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim Hamad Al Thani and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Qatar, Iran and Turkey have drawn closer together as critics of Saudi Arabia since last year. Qatar, for one, has been subject to a Saudi-led blockade by its Gulf neighbors since 2017 over its close ties to Tehran. Relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia soured after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Riyadh has condemned the summit as divisive and urged Muslim countries not to participate in the three-day event. The kingdom and its close allies, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain, stayed away. Indonesian President Joko Widodo also declined to attend despite a personal invitation from Mahathir, sending his foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, instead.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud Salman, 83, also expressed his unhappiness over the summit in a phone call to Mahathir. According to the prime minister, King Salman called to "discuss the summit's purpose."

King Salman "feels that matters like these shouldn't just be discussed by two or three countries and there should be an OIC meeting, and I agreed with him," said Mahathir. The OIC, founded in 1969, has 57 member states and a combined population of more than 1.8 billion.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan pulled out from the Kuala Lumpur conference at the eleventh hour, likely under pressure from Saudi Arabia. "Pakistan wishes to be part of the solution and not part of the problem," Pakistani government spokeswoman Firdous Ashiq Awan said at a news conference in Islamabad. "The premier's vision to bring together the Muslim world means that Pakistan does not wish to align itself with any country's individual interests," she added.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, walks with Iran's President Hassan Rouhani following their meeting ibn the sidelines of the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on Dec. 19.   © AP

OIC Secretary-General Yousef al-Othaimeen told Sky News Arabia last week: "It is not in the interest of an Islamic nation to hold summits and meetings outside the framework of the [OIC], especially at this time, when the world is witnessing multiple conflicts."

Mahathir denied the summit is creating splits within in the OIC. The forum is "too small to do that," he said. "Admittedly, some have misunderstood our intentions. Intentionally or otherwise, some had felt slighted while a few were suspicious," he said.

"We are not here to replace any other Muslim platforms; neither are we intending to create different categories or classes of Muslim nations, nor to undermine others," he stated at the end of the summit.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told the Nikkei Asian Review that Saudi Arabia might apply mild diplomatic sanctions on Malaysia in retaliation for holding the summit.

Measures might include a reduction or a freeze in the number of Malaysians allowed to participate in the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. King Salman is the custodian of the two holy mosques in Saudi Arabia and grants permission for the hajj to Muslims worldwide based on national quotas. These can be revised at his discretion.

"[Malaysia's] ties with Saudi Arabia could never be too bad, as [Malaysia is] a majority-Sunni nation, which sees Saudi as the defender of the Islamic faith, and there are many Saudi-originated religious influences in this country," Oh said.

Erdogan, in a speech at the forum, lambasted the United Nations Security Council for no longer protecting the interests of Muslim countries, instead acting as a guardian of the interests of the five permanent members: Russia, China, France, the U.K. and the U.S.

"In all the platforms we have participated in or assumed responsibility for in recent years, we have raised the problems faced by humanity and Muslims. We declare that the world system needs a new structure based on justice and equity," Erdogan said, in what was seen as oblique criticism of China for its detention of perhaps a million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

Malaysia has hosted the King Salman Centre for International Peace since 2017. The center focuses on combating relgious extremism and is affiliated with the kingdom's Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh.

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