Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 12, 2022 Updated 3 Days ago
Does the recent Turkey-Saudi Arabia rapprochement mark the end of the Islamic world’s multipolarity–for now?
Saudi Arabia: Remerging as the leader of the Islamic world?

Introduction

The Turkish President, Recip Tayeb Erdogan, recently concluded a trip to Saudi Arabia where he mended ties with Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, after a few years of maintaining a public feud. This visit coincided with the new Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Shareef’s trip to Saudi Arabia, the focus of both meetings with bin Salman being the infusion of fresh capital into each nation’s respective economies. The fact that Saudi Arabia has also slowly repaired its ties with Qatar, Indonesia, and Malaysia and is even engaging in discussions with its –arch-rival Iran demonstrates the (temporary) end of a failed experiment in creating an alternate centre of global Islamic influence in the world.

The Kuala Lumpur Summit: Challenging Saudi Arabia’s Islamic hegemony

Over the past decade, various undercurrents were swirling in the Muslim world with nations trying to dislodge Saudi Arabia from its ostensible position as the leader of the Islamic world. One recent event that took place along these lines was the Kuala Lumpur Summit held at the end of 2019, which was attended by Qatar, Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia, in the capital city of Malaysia. The Summit marked a turn in global Islamic politics with the attending nations all trying to position themselves as new leaders in the Islamic world and challenge Saudi Arabia. This was facilitated by various domestic and bilateral (with Saudi) political trends that were occurring since the late 2010s.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has also slowly repaired its ties with Qatar, Indonesia, and Malaysia and is even engaging in discussions with its –arch-rival Iran demonstrates the (temporary) end of a failed experiment in creating an alternate centre of global Islamic influence in the world.

Beyond the obvious example of Iran’s support to forces diametrically opposed to Saudi Arabia (such as the Houthis in Yemen or Assad in Syria), Turkey was also trying to restore its image as a leader of the Islamic world and bring back the glory of the Ottoman empire challenging Saudi’s role. This was also facilitated by Turkey’s blow to Saudi Arabia when it released sensitive data and video footage and it pressed on with the investigation of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi embassy in Turkey (October 2018). These revelations drew significant condemnation across the western world consequently enraging Saudi Arabia and leading to a boycott of Turkish goods.

Meanwhile, since June 2017, Qatar was facing a severe economic and political blockade by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain for its ostensible ties with Iran. Significantly though, the quartet’s main complaint was Qatar’s independent policy of supporting Islamist actors across the Arab world even if these groups were opposed to the quarter’s interests.

Simultaneously, Indonesia and Malaysia were going through immense domestic turmoil whereby many citizens of the two South East Asian nations were questioning Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism into their nations. Malaysia specifically was freshly dealing with a huge corruption scandal with a Saudi role in the matter before its May 2018 election was won by Mahathir Mohammed, who was known for his brashness and slight anti-Saudi proclivities.

Apart from the Kuala Lumpur Summit, a similar grouping was also occurring with Pakistan under ex-PM Imran Khan who had decided to launch a new channel on Islamophobia along with Turkey and Malaysia—an endeavour that never materialised. Pakistan which has long been a strong military and economic ally of Saudi Arabia was seething at Riyadh’s increasing closeness to India, its chief rival. Along with the UAE, India was becoming a strong partner for the Gulf nations. With this alliance, hopes of the Saudi-dominated Organization of Islamic Countries’ (OIC) support for Pakistan on its Kashmir dispute with India was also dwindling. Although Pakistan’s presence at the Kuala Lumpur Summit was stopped due to a strong censuring by Saudi Arabia, its willingness to join the grouping demonstrated its unhappiness with Saudi Arabia.

Reversing fortunes and trends

Yet, two years later, the Islamic world’s poles have begun to melt once again with Saudi Arabia being given deference once again. With the exit of Mahathir in 2020 and the entry of a different government in Malaysia, public criticism of Saudi Arabia tapered off. Moreover, Indonesia’s Prime Minister Widodo recently engaged with  for investments for its new capital city in the Island of Borneo after the withdrawal of its original investor, the Softbank group.

Indonesia and Malaysia were going through immense domestic turmoil whereby many citizens of the two South East Asian nations were questioning Saudi Arabia’s export of Wahhabism into their nations.

Turkey’s visit to Saudi Arabia was also testament to the latter’s increasing power vis-á-vis the former given the tough domestic situation in Turkey. Pakistani PM Shareef’s main aim of visiting Saudi Arabia was also to secure more funding to stabilise a Pakistan embittered by political polarisation. Saudi Arabia had also lifted the blockade on Qatar in early 2021 and is now in talks with Iran to scale down their cold war after a semi-successful ceasefire in Yemen between groups supported by both nations.

One major reason that this rapprochement seems to have taken place is due to the debilitating effect of the pandemic across the Muslim world’s economies. Turkey’s fall in tourism revenues coupled with poor economic decisions by Erdogan has caused significant inflation leading to increased prices in the nation. A drop in tourism affected the Southeast Asian nations Malaysia and Indonesia too which base significant portions of their revenue on this sector. Moreover, the two nations were almost paralysed by the medical ravages of the pandemic that destroyed lives and economic livelihoods across the nations. The same problems occurred in Pakistan too, eventually also accelerating Imran Khan’s downfall in the nation.

Another aspect to consider is that Saudi Arabia was able to balance out some of the pandemic’s economic fall out in the aftermath of the Russia–Ukraine war which has raised the cost of oil back to a peak of 110 dollars a barrel. The revenue accrued from this (more than double previous years) has helped Saudi shore up its finances long challenged by reduced oil prices as well as war expenses across the Middle East and Africa. This same factor has also created more challenges for the rest of the Muslim nations which has had to pay more for oil and deal with the loss of key imports such as wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, amongst others further giving Saudi an edge in the political scenario of the Muslim world.

A drop in tourism affected the Southeast Asian nations Malaysia and Indonesia too which base significant portions of their revenue on this sector. Moreover, the two nations were almost paralysed by the medical ravages of the pandemic that destroyed lives and economic livelihoods across the nations.

Short-term advantage

Domestic strife, economic woes, and natural geopolitical trends accelerated by the pandemic resulted in the failure of contenders to Saudi Arabia’s religious leadership in the Muslim world. As various nations go back to Riyadh in a bid to regain lost ties and economic support, it is safe to say that there will be no alternate Islamic power centre that will emerge for now. Qatar will likely continue to support Islamist groups outside of Saudi interests and the UAE will continue with its Sufi-dominated peace forums, but no one will want to openly challenge Saudi’s status as an Islamic hegemon in the short term.

For now, Saudi authorities will likely be relieved at the current situation of the Islamic world and its own economic prowess creating its status again as the generous benefactor to other Muslim nations. However, it will only be a matter of a few years and new shifts in global currents before other nation(s) will try to form another pole within the Islamic world. By then Riyadh would have hoped to be further along the path of economic and religious independence so that its stakes are much lower.

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Author

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non – Resident Associate Fellow working with Professor Harsh Pant in the Strategic Studies Programme. He will be working on ...

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