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A Timely Analysis: The Foreign Policy Trends of Muslim-Majority States

Muslim-majority states prefer to pursue neutrality in their foreign policy. Many believe this is because they simply oppose liberal ideology. However, closer examination of their modern strategic foreign policy reveals a more nuanced, practical and multipolar approach.

Mumbai / India 05 June 2019 Indian Muslims offering Namaz on the occasion of eid ul fitr in front of Bandra railway station at Mumbai Maharashtra India © arun sambhu mishra /

April 23, 2023 23:01 EDT

After over a year of war in Ukraine, some 50 Muslim-majority states from Morocco to Indonesia are following a policy of neutrality in the Russia-Ukraine War. They neither support Russia nor Ukraine or its backer, the West. Muslim-majority states are not only unified in their neutral stance on the war, but also follow assertive foreign policy paradigms that contain broader international implications.

Muslim-majority states “de-westernize” their international affairs and establish strategic partnerships with other great powers while reducing their dependence on arms suppliers from the US. They also avoid interstate rivalry and interference in domestic affairs of fellow Muslim-majority states, or other authoritarian great powers.

This article analyzes the foreign affairs of Muslim-majority states through two prisms, descriptive and explanatory. The descriptive section highlights observable data, such as their foreign policy views, commitments, or actions that demonstrate their balanced approach to international affairs. The explanatory section questions the nature of their actions: Why, for example, do Muslim-majority states diversify their relationships beyond Western partnerships, including their increased arms supply from Russia?

A Beacon of Neutrality 

Muslim-majority states maintain a “practical”, “cautious” or “uneasy” neutrality over the Russia-Ukraine War. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan summarized this position by stating, “We cannot hold sides. We cannot take sides. And it wouldn’t be right for us to do that.” 

Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, emulated Erdoğan when he refused to blame Russia for the war. He said, “countries like Pakistan should not pass any value and moral judgment on this” and they should be “nonaligned, neutral, and friendly to both.” Malaysia has similarly committed to neutrality.

Saudi Arabia, like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), generally views the war “as a complicated European conflict.” The GCC leaders see no reason for Arab states “to stand against Vladimir Putin’s government.” Egypt’s foreign ministry released a statement affirming the importance of “dialogue and diplomatic solutions”. This reluctance to blame and antagonize Russia triggered prompt expressions of frustration from Kyiv’s embassy in Cairo.

Currently, it is difficult to find any statement by Muslim-majority states that supports either the West or Russia. These states have remained studiously neutral. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is an exception to this phenomenon.

It’s Not Personal, It’s Policy

The Muslim world’s approach to the invasion reflects their readiness to establish political, economic and security partnerships with multiple players in the international system. They are not choosing alliances with a single power. This is what contemporary Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin and late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington posited when they spoke about Islamic-Orthodox or Islamic-Confucian alliances. Muslim-majority states prefer constructive engagements with various great powers based solely on their commercial, security or geopolitical interests. 

Turkey, for example, sees Russia as an important partner for energy, tourism and regional security. At the same time, as a member of NATO, Ankara is allied with the US and European powers for its security. China has now become Saudi Arabia’s biggest trading partner. The US still remains the Kingdom’s most important security partner though. Since choosing one relationship over the other would be costly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia tend to pursue multi-directional foreign policies. Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Jakarta, Islamabad, and Doha also respect the US as a great power, while maintaining relationships with other great powers.

Muslim-majority states are forging relationships with non-Western groups, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Both groups approach international affairs in a multipolar manner, and act as an alternative to the US-led order. In the Middle East alone, Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States Emirates (UAE) are current or prospective dialogue partners of the SCO. All medium-sized Muslim-majority countries, such as Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, look positively to BRICS. The same holds for other parts of the Muslim world, specifically Kazakhstan, Nigeria, the UAE, Senegal, Algeria, Uzbekistan and Malaysia. All prefer to participate in remaking the rules of the international system, a process that is now underway. 

More consequential commitments from Muslim-majority states at the multilateral level are found within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they defied calls from the US to pump more crude as prices of oil rallied to multi-year highs. In October 2022, Muslim-majority member states within OPEC+ decided to cut crude production by two million barrels a day, a move that benefitted not only Russia, but also themselves. On April 2, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC+ oil producers announced further oil output cuts of around 1.16 million barrels per day. For these states, staying friendly with the US is subordinate to pursuing their national economic goals.

Muslim-majority states are also generally reluctant to interfere in the domestic affairs of fellow Muslim states, including on issues of serious human rights violations. In the UN Human Rights Council, no Muslim-majority state member voted for the international fact-finding mission to independently investigate alleged human rights violations in Iran. Tehran had cracked down on protests that began on September 16, 2022 after the death in police custody of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini.

Muslim-majority states also ignore the domestic affairs of other great powers, including serious human rights violations of Muslim minorities. This behavior of their political leaders, including their state religious bodies, is striking. They have remained silent on the massive detention and forced re-education of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in Northwest China. In July 2019, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and other Muslim-majority states helped to block a Western motion at the United Nations calling for China to allow “independent international observers” into the Xinjiang region. 

This year, a delegation from The World Muslim Communities Council (TWMCC), which comprises 14 Muslim-majority states, visited Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. According to its statement, TWMCC “hailed the efforts of the Chinese authorities in combating terrorism in Xinjiang”. As prime minister, Khan also complained that hardly any Muslim country, with the exception of Turkey, stands with Pakistan on the rights of the Kashmiri people.

Fighter Jets and Possible Peace

Neutrality in the exercise of international affairs generally does not come cheap. It is important to note that many Muslim-majority states take appropriate measures to protect and pay for their stances. According to a fact sheet of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 14 Muslim-majority states are listed among the top 30 largest importers of arms, accounting for 38.8% of the total volume of arms imports from 2017 to 2021. 

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Pakistan and the UAE are listed among the top 10 largest importers of arms. This illustrates that weapon imports from Russia are the most important driver of relations between Muslim-majority states and Moscow. According to SIPRI, Russia was the largest arms supplier for Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and Pakistan from 2017 to 2021. It was the second and third largest supplier for Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Pakistan and the UAE. Moreover, half of the top Russian weapons importers are Muslim-majority states. At the regional level, the Middle East and North African (MENA) region was the second most lucrative for Russian arms sales between 2009 and 2018. 

In recent years, Russia’s share of MENA’s defense market has doubled, as arms deliveries increased by 125% from 1999-2008 to 2009-2018. In 2009-18, Russia delivered weapons to 14 countries in the region, which accounted for 26% of the total volume of Russia’s arms exports. In 1999-2008 this figure was only 14%. As arms imports from Russia increased, imports from the US decreased. They went down from 47% in 2012-16 to 43% in 2017-21. 

Continuing this trend, arms exports from the US to the UAE fell by 36% between 2016 and 2020. The UAE was the second largest recipient of US arms in 2012–16 but fell to the eighth largest in 2017–21. For the same period, arms exports to Turkey fell by 81% as they went from the third largest recipient of US arms exports in 2011–15 to the 19th largest in 2016–20. 

In 2022, Erdoğan revealed that his country is no longer dependent on the US. Facing problems with importing fighter jets, he said, “If we can’t get the results out of the United States about the F-16s, what are we going to do? Of course, we’re going to take care of our own selves”.

The generalization of the Muslim world versus others ignores the important issue of interstate relations between Muslim-majority states. What happens between rival Muslim-majority states in a world that is no longer unipolar? 

Data on civil, proxy, or interstate wars suggest that rival Muslim states compete far less today than in the past. States with previously strained relations, made bilateral U-turns in recent years. Turkey and Saudi Arabia established military collaborations and Erdoğan hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The Turkish defense minister met his Syrian counterpart in Moscow. Saudi Arabia reopened a consulate in Iraq and pledged $1 billion in aid. Additionally, there was a ceasefire in Yemen and even the civil war in Syria has subsided. 

The recent deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran marks a dramatic departure from years of open hostility. Perhaps even more unexpectedly, Turkey began a rapprochement with Syria. While the rivalry between Muslim-majority states will not cease completely in the emerging multipolar world, old differences are shrinking considerably.

Assertively Moving from the Periphery 

Leaders in the West might wonder why many Muslim-majority states are reluctant to embrace the Western narrative about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This might come across as surprising given that some of these states host US military troops. To make sense of what is going on, a closer examination of the Muslim world is necessary.

Both the Russian Dugin and the American Huntington depicted a unitary nature of the Muslim world. They generalized Islamic civilization as a single variable or meta-force in international affairs. This has provoked serious and never-ending debate. However, religion has never been the central defining element for Muslim-majority states. Furthermore, Dugin and Huntington did not examine the relationship between Islam and forms of government in Muslim-majority countries. The reality is complex.

Our assumption at the international level is that Muslim-majority states resent the liberal international order and the threat that it poses to their political societies. Their political elites do generally dislike what John Mearsheimer calls “a liberal unipole” in which the US, as the sole superpower in the international system, pursues a policy of “liberal hegemony.” They do not want the liberal American elites to reshape Muslim-majority states in their own image. Indeed, there is a problem in the Muslim world with accepting the universality and superiority of liberal ideology. The liberal political elite in the West believes in democracy and free markets, and wants to impose this on others. Muslim-majority states distrust this Western, especially American, article of faith. They see recent military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya as disasters. 

Therefore, Muslim-majority states prefer multipolarity in the international system. In this system, their voices can be heard and they can move from the periphery to the center of international politics. Many Muslim-majority states have progressed from dependent status, serving foreign policy objectives of other great powers, to push for what Pakistani Khan calls “more dignity”, “self-respect” and “independence” in international affairs.

Turkey, for example, has gradually moved from a peripheral state, or as Huntington describes a “torn state”, in the Western block to a core state in its regional sub-system. Turkey’s recent stand on Ukraine or Saudi Arabia’s strategic partnership with China underlines an important shift. A new world order has emerged where China and Russia have become important, and are now challenging the US. 

Michael Singh has explained how medium-sized states are “eschewing both alignment with a single power and nonalignment, and instead choosing omni-alignment: participation in the multilateral institutions led by the United States and those spearheaded by its rivals.” He argues that “omni-alignment also serves as a hedge against the unpredictability of great-power behavior”. This hedging is most clearly seen in the Middle East, where the future of both US and Chinese engagement remains unclear.

Muslim-majority states view liberal ideology as a threat to their political systems. They prefer strong, sovereign and authoritarian states. The Muslim world still remains unfriendly to liberal democracy, irrespective of variations in faith practices, ideologies, regime characteristics or elite interests. Muslim-majority states are either non-democratic or have no functional democracy by Western standards. Those few Muslim countries that hold regular elections, such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia, have not reached the status of “consolidated democracy” according to Freedom House.

Data on individual freedoms reveals that Muslim-majority states score poorly on the right to vote, freedom of expression and equality before the law. Of all Muslim-majority states that are members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), not one scored enough to be given the status of a free state. The majority are considered not free, with the rest deemed partially free. Given their opposition to the liberal order, contemporary Muslim kings, presidents, and prime ministers built stronger partnerships with Donald Trump, a like-minded American president. He railed against the liberal order and supported strongmen around the world such as Erdoğan, MBS and Mohamed bin Zayed. In turn, they prefer Trump to Biden.

Shared opposition by Muslim-majority states to the international liberal order is allied to their opposition to liberal norms at the national level. Today, Muslim-majority states and their leaders are aiming to move to a post-liberal, new global order where the East balances the West and where they are no longer “client”, “torn”, “vassal”, or “periphery” states.

It remains to be seen how the push for increased centrality within their regional sub-systems will play out for Muslim-majority states. This new assertive foreign policy of the Muslim world will certainly strengthen multipolarity. It suits China and Russia. However, Muslim-majoirty states will not become part of what Huntington defined as the Islamic-Confucian alliance or what Dugin proposed as a common front of Islamic-Orthodox civilisations against the liberal West.

They will continue to establish political, economic or security partnerships with different players in the international system. Muslim states may even contribute to stability in an anarchic and more complex multipolar system by offering mediation in conflict zones that involve opposing great powers. The future will be very different to the present and Muslim-majority states will become bigger players in the international system.

[Lane Gibson edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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