Pakistan and the Non-Arab Islamic Bloc

Note: This article by Dr. Alfonse Javed was originally published in Providence Magazine on  January 07, 2021.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab nations under the leadership of Saudi Arabia have dominated the geopolitics of the Muslim world. In the recent past, there has been evidence of a power struggle between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslim leaders. However, now more than ever, the non-Arab Muslim countries are working together to offset the Arabs’ power. Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia, Iran, and Pakistan seem to be creating a new rival Islamic bloc in opposition to the Arab-led Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second-largest organization in the world after the United Nations with a membership of 57 states, which the Saudis dominate.

OIC enjoys a good working relationship with the United States and its Western allies but the non-Arab Islamic bloc has common grievances against the United States and find China a more favorable option on the global stage. Can Pakistan afford to opt out of being dependent on the United States in favor of China?

Reasons for Division

There are obvious ethnic and denominational differences between the Arab and non-Arab Muslim nations, but there are some personal reasons for the unified non-Arab Islamic front:

  • Turkey seeks to revive its role as the leader of the Muslim world and has been outspoken about its dissatisfaction with the demarcation of modern Turkey.
  • Qatar has been looking for ways to defuse Arab power ever since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt cut their diplomatic and trade ties with Doha, and imposed a sea, land, and air blockade on Qatar in June 2017, claiming it supported “terrorism” and was too close to Iran.
  • Malaysia does not have any particular standing conflict with Arab nations, but in June 2018, Malaysia’s Defense Minister Mohamad Sabu announced the withdrawal of Malaysian forces that had been stationed in Saudi Arabia since 2015, which has created tension between the two governments. Sabu said, “Malaysia has always maintained its neutrality. It has never pursued an aggressive foreign policy,” and that the presence of Malaysian troops in Saudi Arabia “has indirectly mired Malaysia in the Middle East conflict.”
  • BBC reports, “Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals, but tensions between the two have recently soared.” Iran is expanding its influence in the region and is seeing a great advantage in creating a rival bloc to OIC to break Saudi’s power.
  • Pakistan seems to be teaming up with Turkey, Qatar, Malaysia, and Iran. Pakistan has realized that it can no longer solely rely on the US for economic and military aid; therefore, it is diversifying its foreign policy by relying on Muslim nations. This move is largely in defiance of the Saudis, who don’t support Pakistan’s position in the Kashmir dispute.

Disloyalty to Arabs

Back in December 2019, Pakistan was planning to attend a gathering of Muslim nations that was perceived to be an “alternative” to the Saudi-dominated OIC, organized by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and was supposedly supported by Turkey, Qatar, and Iran. However, at the last minute Pakistan decided not to attend the gathering of Islamic nations to avoid confrontation with the Saudis. The Pak-Saudi relationship further suffered when the Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, sent a warning to the Kingdom, stating that if the Saudis remain reluctant to speak up in support of the Pakistani Kashmiri cause, Pakistan would be forced to call a meeting of Muslim nations. Clearly, the Kingdom did not give in to the threat, but rather took it as an offense and a sign of disloyalty.

Religious Ties with Saudis

The Pakistani public will most certainly welcome a good relationship with Turkey, Qatar, and Malaysia, but when this deal comes with a relationship with Iran in defiance of the Saudis, it may hurt Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government. According to the Tehran Times, “Amid a worsening geopolitical scenario, Ankara and Islamabad plan to stick it out together. While Turkey’s neighborhood has been destabilized by the Syrian civil war and Arab-world tensions with Iran and Qatar, Pakistan faces a terror threat due to enduring instability in Afghanistan.” The Shia nation of Iran could not be more delighted if Pakistan were to break its ties with the Saudis. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran have been known to export their brand of Islam in the region as a part of their foreign policy to disseminate their respective version of Islam to gain dominance in the region. Khan cannot be naïve enough to think that Pakistan, a majority-Sunni nation with many radical groups will sit by quietly while Khan gives the front seat to neighboring Iran, a Shia country. Most certainly the Pakistani Shia community will be targeted, and the fire of sectarianism will engulf all religious minorities in Pakistan.

Global Powers

Khan’s government is intentionally distancing Pakistan from its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and the United States, in favor of Turkey and China. Replacing the United States with China is premature. Whether this will work or not is still to be seen. Though the religious powers in Pakistan welcome the idea of moving away from the United States, they can never allow bad blood between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The challenge is an unbreakable relationship between the Saudis and Americans. Their relationship has been proven over and over again, they always stand with each other. Therefore, a good relationship with Saudi Arabia demands a relationship with the United States. While choosing between Saudi Arabia and Iran is hardly a choice for the majority Sunni Pakistan, Khan’s preference over Arabs will simply not work, and the millions of Pakistani workers who send billions of dollars’ worth of remittances will suffer too. By every calculation, any alliance that subtracts the Arab and Gulf states will be disastrous for Pakistan.