Islamabad scrambles to play a balancing act to pacify allies in the Muslim world.
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan may skip a meeting of Muslim leaders being held in Kuala Lumpur after Islamabad’s key ally Saudi Arabia expressed reservations over what is being seen as a new block of influence in the Islamic world, reports say.
Khan is currently in Switzerland on an official visit and a final decision about his participation will be taken upon his return to Pakistan on December 18 (Wednesday), says information minister Firdous Ashiq Awan.
Islamabad will most likely send Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in his place. However, a final decision has yet to be announced.
“Riyadh is very worried about losing Pakistan to Turkey and Malaysia in terms of religious authority,” a Saudi official based in Islamabad told TRT World.
“Islam is the main peg on which Saudi holds Pakistan, and it cannot have any other country challenge its near-monopoly on Pakistan’s religious affairs.”
Saudi officials are also worried that an economic partnership between Turkey, Qatar and Iran could one day replace its aid.
Pakistani officials say they are trying to find a way out of this diplomatic challenge while keeping in view the country's delicate financial position.
These Pakistani officials are of the opinion that Turkey is what “Imran Khan wants to turn Pakistan into, however, is constrained by decades of the financial and religious hold of Saudis over Pakistan.”
The four-day meeting starting December 18 will see leaders including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Indonesia President Joko Widodo deliberate on issues such as security cooperation and the persecution of Muslims.
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad promoted the summit last month as an exclusive gathering of leaders from a handful of countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar and Turkey.
“Obviously, we need to have Muslims supporting this initiative but to begin, we have to do it in a small way, and I hope that we can carry this message all over the world,” Mohamad said at the time.
But the invitation has been extended to leaders and scholars from more than 50 countries. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is already on his way to attend the meeting.
Khan’s absence could be a blow to a gathering, which was viewed as a counterweight to the Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Saudi Arabia’s relations with Turkey and Qatar have deteriorated in the last few years after the Riyadh-led diplomatic and economic blockade of Doha and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry officials have been struggling to deal with the situation as Muslim countries on all sides are Islamabad’s essential allies.
Saudi Arabia has given billions of dollars in loans to Pakistan and it helped bailout Imran Khan’s government last year when the country faced a balance of payments crisis.
On the other hand, Ankara and Kuala Lumpur went out of their way to back Pakistan over Muslim-majority Kashmir when India revoked the disputed territory’s autonomous status.