April 18, 2016
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the second largest inter-governmental organization after the UN with 57 Member States, held its 13th Summit Conference in Istanbul on April 14-15, 2016.
Since its establishment in 1969, the OIC has remained under Saudi patronage. Islam’s holiest shrines are there; the King carries the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques”; the country’s oil wealth has given Riyadh, at least until now, considerable international leverage and ability to secure allegiances; and, the OIC Secretariat is located in Jeddah. Sponsoring the OIC has provided Riyadh with international clout but this has deprived the Organization of the opportunity to gain solid international status. Arab countries have been OIC’s strongest bloc. Turkey, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan are also a category of influential members because they are regional powers and closer to all the trouble. Others which can make a difference are either far away like Malaysia or Indonesia or have an understandably more limited interest in OIC’s agenda.
The 13th Summit took place at a critical juncture with the fallout from the Arab Spring further burdening OIC Member States’ already heavy agenda of diverse internal and international problems. Unsurprisingly however, the Organization has again failed to display the vision, energy, will and unity necessary to rise up to those challenges.
The Summit produced three documents: The “Istanbul Declaration on Unity and Solidarity for Justice and Peace” (1), the “Final Communique of the 13th Islamic Summit Conference” (2) and the “Resolution on the Cause of Palestine and Al-Quds Al-Sharif” (3).
The Resolution reiterates the continuing importance Member States attach to the questions of Palestine and Jerusalem. It is an updated version of OIC’s well-known views.
The “Istanbul Declaration” begins by restating OIC’s principal objectives. Prominently among these are enhancing and consolidating the bonds of fraternity and solidarity among the Member States; ensuring non-interference in the domestic affairs and respect for sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of each Member State. Looking at the sectarian strife which has gripped the Middle East over the last five years it is impossible to say that the OIC has achieved any of these objectives. All leading members of the OIC are currently engaged in proxy wars in Syria. Damascus’ membership is suspended. Turkey and Egypt are at loggerheads over Muslim Brotherhood. Thus Egypt, former Chair of the Summit was not properly represented at the Summit. King Salman and President Rouhani, leaders of the “two regional rivals” as they are often referred to, could not even talk to each other.
The Declaration also reiterates Member States’ commitment to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, good governance, rule of law, democracy and accountability. This is the language used in the preamble of the OIC Charter. In other words, the commitment is there on paper but the results are meager at best.
It expresses concern at the unbearable suffering of millions of Muslim refugees, particularly of the Syrian refugees and refers to the risk of polarization among Muslims due to sectarian policies as if the leading members of the OIC have nothing to do with the Syrian conflict.
It condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations regardless of motive and wherever and by whomever committed and reject any attempt to affiliate terrorism with any nationality, civilization, religion or ethnic group. It reiterates OIC’s determination to fight terrorist organizations like DEASH, Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab and PKK/PYD/YPG.
And, the Declaration calls on Western States to take necessary measures to combat xenophobia and Islamophobia and to ensure the safety and well-being of Muslims facing these scourges.
The OIC final communiques are long and designed to allow all Member States to go back and tell their peoples that they enjoy OIC’s support on a particular issue that is of relevance to them. The 218 paragraph-long Istanbul Final Communique is no exception. Worthy of special attention are the paragraphs on Iran:
“30. The Conference stressed the need for the cooperative relations between Islamic States and the Islamic Republic of Iran to be based on the principle of good-neighborliness, non-interference in their domestic affairs, respect for their independence and territorial sovereignty, resolving differences by peaceful means in accordance with the OIC and the UN charters and the principles of international law, and refraining from the use or threat of force.
“31. The Conference condemned the aggressions against the missions of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Tehran and Mashhad in Iran, which constitute a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, and international law which guarantees the inviolability of diplomatic missions.
“32. The Conference rejected Iran’s inflammatory statements on the execution of judicial decisions against the perpetrators of terrorist crimes in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, considering those statements a blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and a contravention of the United Nations Charter, the OIC Charter and of all international covenants.
“33. The Conference deplored Iran’s interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other Member States including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism.”
This is probably the first such strong public condemnation ever of a member of the OIC. But, the Final Communique does not stop there. It endorses the position of Saudi Arabia on the Yemen conflict (paragraphs, 72-76). The Communique even commends the major humanitarian role of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Member States through their humanitarian efforts and programs to address the humanitarian situation in Yemen (paragraph 208). Furthermore, it expresses support for the efforts of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and all Member States to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and in another jab at Tehran condemns Hizbollah for conducting terrorist activities in Syria, Bahrain, Kuwait and Yemen and for supporting terrorist movements and groups undermining the security and stability of OIC.
At a time when Saudi Arabia’s condoning if not supporting radical/jihadist groups, its role in the Syrian conflict and its resistance to internal reform are coming under closer scrutiny, its intervention in Yemen becoming a subject of growing criticism and its relations with the US somewhat problematic, the Summit outcome must have given some satisfaction to Riyadh. This “diplomatic victory”, however, carries no more weight in the international arena than the OIC itself. More depends on to what extent President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia next week for a summit with leaders of GCC nations will help heal the growing unease in relations between Washington and Riyadh.
Iran, on the other hand, must have resented its isolation at the Summit and what was said in the Communique. But while formally disassociating itself from the document and looking at options to make this “victory” a Pyrrhic one for Saudi Arabia and its allies, Tehran may prefer to play down the Summit outcome as a country which has successfully negotiated the nuclear deal with world’s six leading powers and whose star, despite some hurdles such as its missile program, is on the rise. Only a day after the OIC Summit, “the European Union and Iran have turned a new page in their diplomatic relations”, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said on her visit to Tehran.
As for Turkey, it appears that the OIC Summit was viewed as an opportunity to regain some of the ground lost on the regional and international scene. Before the Summit King Salman and after the Summit President Rouhani paid bilateral visits to Ankara. President Erdogan chaired the Summit. But making headway on the international scene depends on combining internal peace and stability with sound diplomacy. At present, however, Ankara is faced with serious internal problems and its foreign policy is a failure. Turkey would have become region’s leading nation had it continued the path of democratic reform and avoided getting involved in the Syrian conflict. Thus it may even have assumed the role of “facilitator” between Riyadh and Tehran as it once did between Israel and Syria. Chairmanship of the OIC Summit for the next two years will not by itself bolster Ankara’s international standing unless the government undertakes a dramatic review of its internal and external policies.