The Saudi Show

Leaders of predominantly Muslim countries pose for a group picture ahead of Islamic Summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Saudi Arabia

Syeda Mamoona Rubab writes about the happenings at 14th OIC summit


Divisions within the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which claims to be the “the collective voice of the Muslim world,” were at full display at the 14th summit of the 57-member body held in Makkah.

The broad agenda of the meeting held on May 31 under the theme Makkah Summit: Together for the Future covered “current issues in the Muslim world” and “recent developments in a number of OIC member states.” Leading Saudi newspaper Saudi Gazette described the OIC meeting as an attempt to flaunt “the power of unity against sectarian and divisive forces.”

Saudi Arabia also convened summits of Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council in Makkah in the days preceding the summit of the second-largest intergovernmental organization in the world (OIC).

OIC summits are convened every three years. The last one was held in Istanbul in 2016. The 14th edition was held amidst growing tensions in the Persian Gulf in which Iran is on one side, and US and its Arab allies on the other. Naturally, the forum was used by the hosts to bash Tehran and claim that the Muslim world backs its position in the crisis.

Saudi King Salman unleashed some harsh criticism against Iran in his speech at the OIC summit, accusing Tehran of backing “terrorist militia” that carried out drone attacks on Saudi oil pumping stations a few weeks ago. “We confirm that these subversive terrorist acts are aimed not only at the kingdom and the [Persian] Gulf region, but also on the security of navigation and energy supplies to the world,” the king told the gathering.

He had lashed out at Iran at the Arab League and GCC meetings as well in lead up to the summit where he had called upon the international community to thwart Iran “using all means to stop the regime from interfering in the internal affairs of other countries, harbouring global and regional terrorist entities and threatening international waterways.”

The OIC summit communiqué, reflecting Saudi concerns, condemned and noted: “the acts of sabotage against four commercial vessels in the UAE’s regional waters as a criminal act threatening the security and safety of marine navigation, calling upon the international community to shoulder its responsibility toward international trade and regional stability.”

An Op-Ed piece in Saudi Gazette on this occasion said: “The fight against terrorism requires the mobilisation of all states, and that is the goal which the three summits aim to achieve, as they work to develop strict sanctions and a clear vision against any hostile action that aims to harm any Gulf, Arab or Islamic country.”

Iran, which was not represented at the summit at the leadership level, rejected the allegations. An Iranian official remained at the meeting for observing the proceedings. The Iranian foreign ministry, through a statement, later accused Saudi Arabia of “exploiting the holy month of Ramazan, and the holy city of Makkah, to level allegations against Iran.” Riyadh was further accused of engaging in blame game at the cost of “missing the opportunity provided by International Quds Day and the OIC summit to press for the rights of the Palestinian people…and choosing instead to sow discord among Muslim and regional countries.”

As a matter of fact OIC, which owes its raison d’être to the cause of Palestine, did touch upon the issue. The final statement stressed support for a future Palestinian state, denounced shifting of Israel’s capital to Jerusalem and any plan that could potentially prolong Israeli occupation and undermine the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

The assertion that OIC leaders rejected “prolongation of the occupation and expansionist settlement project at the expense of the legitimate national rights of the Palestinian people, including the recognition by the US administration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” was widely considered to be an implicit condemnation of the ‘Deal of Century’ – a plan being pushed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Israel with the backing of Arab allies.

Despite this veiled reference to the plan that has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority, Bahrain will later this month hold a conference for mustering Arab support for the project. Saudi Arabia and UAE are attending the conference in Bahrain. The ‘Deal of Century’ is a Trumpian solution to Palestine conflict offering Palestinians better economic opportunities instead of the land. Interestingly, the Arabs are being asked to foot the bill for the promised better economic opportunities for Palestine.

This, in a way, shows the hypocrisy of the Muslim countries towards the Palestine issue. OIC communiqués have all along lacked the force and conviction because of which they hardly get implemented. This is because their leaders, with their divergent political interests, fail to form common ground.

The other things that happened around the show also bring the divisions in Ummah’s ranks into limelight. For instance Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan skipped the event, and instead sent his foreign minister Mevlut Cavusogluto. Relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been frosty since Khashoggi’s murder. Moreover, the Kingdom believes that it was Turkish support that helped Qatar cope with the blockade by its Arab brothers. Then there is a rivalry between Erdogan and Saudi rulers over the issue of leadership of Muslim world.

Erdogan, being the host of the 13th summit, was to handover the chair of OIC to Saudi Arabia at the start of the summit, but that had to be lowered to a low key affair at the foreign ministers meeting because of the Turkish president’s absence.

In somewhat positive development, Saudi rulers invited Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani after two years of break in relations. The Qatari Emir did not go and instead sent his Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani. That said, there was little warmth when the Qatari and Saudi leaders met each other. What came to define that interaction was a snub by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, who said things can move forward only when Qatar returns to the “right path.”

The writer is a senior researcher at Islamabad Policy Institute. She can be reached at [email protected]

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