Can Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad bring together a divided Muslim world riven by conflict, oppression and under-development? That’s the question observers will ask as Islamic world leaders and representatives convene in Kuala Lumpur for a four-day summit chaired by the outspoken 94-year-old Malaysian leader.

“Islam, the Muslims and their countries are in a state of crisis, helpless and unworthy of this great religion which is meant to be good for mankind,” said Mahathir in his opening address to the summit, at which he said Muslim nations had “lost the respect of the world” due to rampant terrorism and disrespect for human rights.

Billed as an opportunity to build cooperation on governance and sustainable development, tackle the threat of radicalism and push back against Islamophobia, the KL Summit nominally aims to be a results-oriented venue for Muslim cooperation.

But elsewhere, namely Saudi Arabia, there are clear signs of pique over the forum’s agenda and participants.

Mahathir is presiding over the gathering alongside fellow heads of state, including Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Mahathir Mohamad (R) in Putrajaya, December 18, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency/Murat Kula

Notably absent, however, are the leaders of the world’s two most populous Muslim nations, Indonesia and Pakistan, as well as Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading Sunni Muslim nation and custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites.

A day before summit proceedings began, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan withdrew, despite being one of the leaders who had initially proposed the forum. Pakistani media reports citing diplomatic sources said Khan’s last-minute cancellation was due to Saudi pressure.

Khan withdrew soon after holding a bilateral meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in Riyadh on December 14. A statement from Mahathir’s office denied that Khan had been pressured by Saudi Arabia not to attend and said the Pakistani leader’s cancellation owed to “other issues.”

Mahathir, however, reportedly held an urgent video conference earlier this week with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud to reassure him that the KL Summit did not aim to undermine or replace the Riyadh-dominated Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), illustrating the depth to which the kingdom’s feathers have been ruffled over the event.

It is unclear whether high-level representatives from Saudi Arabia were even invited to the summit. The presence of leaders from Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals, as well as Turkey, whose ties with Riyadh plummeted after last year’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have been regarded by some analysts as a challenge to Saudi leadership in the Islamic world.

James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, sees the gathering in Malaysia as indicative of wider misgivings with the direction of Saudi leadership and the “go-it-alone, almost reckless foreign policy” trajectory pursued by the kingdom under the 34-year-old crown prince’s leadership.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the Royal Court in Riyadh on January 14, 2019. Photo: AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool

“Since Mahathir has come back to government, the Malaysian-Saudi relationship hasn’t been that close. Riyadh clearly wants unrivaled leadership and, by definition, you’re going to get opposition to that,” he told Asia Times. “The Saudis do not like challenges, and certainly not challenges to their leadership.”

Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies, echoed those views, remarking that Saudi Arabia sees itself as providing “both de facto and de jure regional leadership” to the Muslim world as host of the OIC.

“Even though the KL Summit can be viewed as a mini-lateralist initiative, it is perceived by the traditionalist gatekeepers of the multilateralist OIC as a threat to its influence and dividing the ummah [Muslim community],” he said. “As far as affairs of the Muslim world is concerned, OIC should be the only Islamic game in town.

“Even the slightest attempt to undermine their leadership will be met with swift pushback by the Saudi leadership, either directly or through proxies,” said Mustafa, who added that Khan’s eleventh-hour withdrawal signified that Riyadh’s “checkbook diplomacy” continues to hold sway over Islamabad and its national interests.

That is despite Malaysia navigating its foreign policy closer to Pakistan than India, the analyst said. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly in September, Mahathir irked New Delhi when he said India had “invaded and occupied Kashmir”, a disputed Muslim-majority region also claimed by Pakistan.

In that speech, Mahathir also lambasted Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s leadership over its treatment of the country’s Rohingya Muslim minority, even referring to the crisis in Rakhine state as “a genocide.” He also controversially argued the seizures of Palestinian land that led to the creation of Israel were “the origin of terrorism.”

Mahathir has long taken activist stances on issues affecting the Global South and Muslim world, and is known in particular for championing the Palestinian cause and non-recognition of Israel. Critics have widely accused him of holding anti-Semitic views, which Mahathir maintains is an “unfair” label.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani (L) meets Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (R) in Kuala Lumpur, December 18, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via Anadolu Agency

Though a nominal ally of the United States, Mahathir has been publicly critical of Washington’s foreign policy, both in his current and past (1981-2003) premierships.

More recently, the premier has spoken out against the Donald Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, as well as America’s unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Many, however, will be closely observing how speakers at the summit address the issue of China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs in its western region of Xinjiang. Beijing has been widely criticized for overseeing the mass detentions of Uighurs in facilities described by Beijing as vocational skills training centers.

Chinese authorities have denied wrongdoing and defend the sprawling facilities as necessary to thwart religious extremism. Critics, including Western governments, accuse Beijing of engineering a vast forced assimilation scheme some have described as “concentration camps.”

In the Islamic world, though, China’s controversial policies in Xinjiang have been less openly criticized by national leaders, with economic considerations including investments under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) resulting in soft-pedaling or outright silence on the issue, analysts say.

Mahathir uncharacteristically admitted as much in September when he said Beijing was too “powerful” to censure over the Uighur issue.

“You don’t just try and do something which would anyway fail, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us,” he was quoted as saying in media reports.

Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China's western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker
Uighur men walking into the Id Kah mosque for afternoon prayers in Kashgar, in China’s western Xinjiang region in a 2015 photo. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker

“Mahathir himself has not spoken out on Xinjiang, but his officials have. And he was one of the first leaders to challenge the Belt and Road Initiative and renegotiate it,” said Dorsey. “Ultimately, there is public opinion that makes this position of support for the Chinese, or silence at the least, unsustainable.”

“Muslim brotherliness” does not operate in a vacuum, said Mustafa, adding that attempts to build solidarity within the Islamic world are “constantly tested by geopolitical discordance and national interests dictated by domestic politics, external security and economic primacy.”

While many remain unconvinced that the gathering will bring about substantial change against the backdrop of a polarized and strife-ridden Islamic world, few dispute the sincerity of Mahathir’s attempts to advance the interests and dignity of Muslim nations and peoples.

Malaysia “has come to be known as a middle power with Islamic characteristics” through the painstaking efforts by Mahathir and his successors to deepen solidarity across the Muslim world, said Mustafa. “This KL Summit can be viewed in this context, as a central plank of Malaysia’s foreign policy to play an instrumental role in the affairs of the global ummah.”

Selma Bardakci, a coordinator with the Asia Pacific Business Council and the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEİK), told Asia Times that Mahathir’s outspoken leadership on the global stage has raised awareness of various humanitarian crises and is well-regarded by Muslims internationally.

“It is important to recognize the significance of Mahathir’s leadership and inspiration in the Muslim world,” Selma said. “Through his candor with this global community, he is rebuilding Malaysia’s international reputation and projecting Malaysian soft power by positioning his country against injustice and oppression across the board.”