Fifty years after being disinvited from the 1969 Conference of Islamic Countries in Rabat in Morocco at Pakistan’s behest, India will make its maiden appearance at the foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on March 1 as a “guest of honour”.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will attend the foreign ministers’ meeting to be held in Abu Dhabi, on March 1-2, at the invitation of the UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
This is the first time India has been invited to the OIC after 1969, when then Industrial development minister Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed was disinvited on arriving at Morocco, after Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan lobbied against Indian participation.
Sources said that the invitation was initiated by the UAE, and it came about a month ago. “After internal deliberations, they conveyed that India will attend at the Foreign minister’s level,” a source told The Sunday Express, adding that the decision to attend was taken before the Pulwama attack.
A victory, for now
The invitation to address the OIC meet is a significant diplomatic victory for India. The invite may be an important outcome of the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, apart from an indication of New Delhi’s improved ties with both Saudi and the UAE. However, it is important to watch what line OIC takes on J&K. Pakistan is likely to have already begun behind-the-scenes negotiations for a statement on Kashmir.
Sources said that New Delhi will only attend the “inaugural” session, and not be part of the negotiations of the OIC’s joint communique. “We are not part of the OIC. So we are not in the drafting of the communique”, a source said.
“But it will be interesting to see the statements by Bangladesh, the past President of OIC, the UAE, the current President, and the OIC secretary-general. We will put across our view of the world at that platform,” the source said.
It is expected that while New Delhi will raise issues pertaining to cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, the OIC’s communique will have references to Kashmir, at Pakistan’s behest, as in the past. Sources said that the OIC is long considered to be “Pakistan’s playground” but with India’s growing relationship with the UAE, this has been made possible.
“It is good to enter into your enemy’s camp,” a source said, indicating that New Delhi has shed its reluctance to engage with the OIC – whose annual statements on Kashmir have always been rejected by India. A similar situation can occur this time as well.
The MEA said in its statement Saturday that the invitation indicated “the desire of the enlightened leadership of the UAE to go beyond our rapidly growing close bilateral ties and forge a true multifaceted partnership at the multilateral and international level” and a “milestone in our comprehensive strategic partnership with the UAE”.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was the chief guest at the 68th Republic Day celebrations in 2017, the first time that India laid out the Republic Day red carpet for a leader who was neither a Head of State nor Head of Government.
The Crown Prince, an extremely popular leader across the Middle East, who is often known by his initials MBZ, had earlier visited India in February 2016, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE in August 2015.
It is also significant that the invitation to the OIC Foreign Ministers’ meet comes days after the visit to India of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman.
Sources said that this is an indication of New Delhi’s improved ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Gulf region as a whole. “If you see the personal relationship between the leaders of these countries and our leadership, it has strengthened and grown in the last few years,” a source said.
The MEA also called the invitation a “welcome recognition” of the presence of 185 million Muslims in India and of their contribution to its pluralistic ethos, and of India’s contribution to the Islamic world.
The OIC — formerly Organisation of the Islamic Conference — is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world after the UN, with a membership of 57 states in four continents. The OIC describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world”, and its stated objective is “to safeguard and protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting international peace and harmony among various people of the world”.
The OIC has reserved its membership for Muslim-majority countries. Russia, Thailand, and a couple of other small countries have Observer status. At the 45th session of the Foreign Ministers’ Summit in May 2018, Bangladesh, the host country, had suggested that India, which accounts for more than 10 per cent of the world’s Muslims, should be given Observer status but Pakistan had opposed the suggestion.