Is a pan-Islamic foreign policy possible? What are the possible obstacles and what might facilitate its emergence?

Essay, 2002

10 Pages, Grade: 17 von 20 (A)


Is a pan-Islamic foreign policy possible? What are the possible obstacles and what might facilitate its emergence?

We have to look back to the year 750 AD, the end of the Omayyad Caliphs[1], to see the “Islamic world” acting as an united power. The probability of an emergence of a pan-Islamic foreign policy is to be discussed in this essay, which means a foreign policy that involves all Muslim countries and allows them to speak with one voice. Joint policy aims can only be formulated when the interests differ just slightly. The Islamic countries however have few common goals. Firstly this essay will discuss economic, and secondly political and cultural factors. Thirdly the structure of the states will be considered, and finally religious influences will be evaluated. It will be shown that obstacles impeding a collective foreign policy outweigh the driving forces in its favour by far.

Economic issues regularly have a strong impact on foreign policy strategies. The interlinkages between the areas of politics and economics are often so complex, that even one major common aim of two states might not be enough to produce a consensus between them on one policy programme. There might be joint interests like issues concerning oil if we talk about Indonesia and Kuwait, for instance. The differences in their goals, however, are too great to bring them together. Kuwait is rich and tries to retain its wealth, while Indonesia struggles with economic difficulties, inflation and local uprisings. The archipelago depends on the support of the world bank while the Kuwaitis do not know any problems of that kind. Nevertheless there are attempts to combine several nations’ economic interests with one another. OPEC, while not all of its member have an Islamic population (although its most influential and powerful ones do), is a fine example of how international co-operation might work. All participants of that organisation produce oil, and they founded this alliance to raise the world oil price by organised behaviour[2]. History shows that this was quite effective in the beginning. Yet this is not enough to be optimistic to create promising prospects for a pan-Islamic co-operation. Since Venezuela has a Christian population, not all OPEC states are Islamic; the organisation can therefore not be seen as a fine prototype for a purely Muslim alliance. Additionally the development of OPEC continued less successfully – in terms of forming a combined foreign policy strategy - than it began. The partnership was solely focused on oil and did not include other economic or political topics. Furthermore the members did not always behave according to the decisions of the organisation, or even worse, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, one member attacked another. This example shows that the same resource might not lead to consent but to hostility, because even before 1990 the Iraqis claimed that Kuwait was using their oil deposits by drilling into Iraqi oilfields. Also not all Islamic states produce oil exports and so other factors in their economies are more important to them. Although over 88% of their populations are Muslims[3], Mali, Indonesia, Uzbekistan and Saudi- Arabia have very dissimilar economic environments due to several factors of which their resources or geography or working ethos are together or alone sufficient to cause such dissimilarity. While Saudi-Arabia’s major concern lies in oil, and much less in agriculture (only 6% of the GDP), Mali depends very heavily on cotton which makes up 50% of its exports, and generally on agriculture which is responsible for 46% of its GDP (it is also significant that some 80% of the labour force is engaged in farming and fishing). An analysis of the economic factors shows that even if Islamic states with economic similarities try to bundle their interests, as they did in OPEC, this is not enough to facilitate a pan-Islamic foreign policy.

Beside the economy, there might be political features or problems which form either obstacles or accelerators for a pan-Islamic front in international relations. The Islamic world is deeply divided. An example of an inter-state quarrel is the bloody war between Iran and Iraq, or the case of Yemen and Saudi-Arabia, which had border disputes for many years[4]. Already existing resentments can be increased by the involvement of third parties. Current tensions between Syria and Turkey about the region of Iskenderun and the water development plans[5] increased further when Turkey delivered water to Israel. This was especially delicate as they sold exactly the water they were arguing about (coming from the river Euphrates) and the nation who bought it was Israel[6], towards which Syria has been very hostile (because Israel had occupied the Gholan hills, and for other reasons). Different Muslim countries traditionally have different allies. Turkey acts mainly in favour of the USA and Europe, Iraq and Iran were supported once from the UK, once from the Soviet Union and once from the USA and Indonesia has linkages in the Asian region. Uzbekistan, which might share economic interests with Saudi-Arabia due to its oil deposits, has other interests apart from this resource. Both nations have friendly relations to contrary powers. Friendship to Russia, for instance, is as crucial for Uzbekistan as are relations towards the USA for Saudi-Arabia. A method to bring forward a pan-Islamic foreign policy might be a narrowing of the primary aims to only Islamic issues. Yet even the major concern of the Arab states – the conflict in the middle east between the Palestinians and Israelis[7] – does not have the same importance for countries like Indonesia, Pakistan or Niger[8]. A possible explanation for the non-involvement of these latter states might be the huge distance between Indonesia and the centre of the conflict, or probably more likely differences between histories and cultures, or even more simply, differences in power politics. The Islamic world stretches from North Africa to Indonesia[9]. It is hard to imagine that all the different countries could be able to pursue a common foreign policy. The difference in location alone causes difficulties: to find a single policy the states have to communicate their interests and agree on a collective opinion. In former times this would have caused immense problems since all messages had to be delivered by letters or envoys, however nowadays the possibilities of modern communication techniques could facilitate intense talks. Therefore some might argue that distance might play no role for closer alliances. Nevertheless, existing political unions prove this statement wrong. The European Union for example has created a strong alliance and “thinks” about a united foreign policy. A first step towards that has already happened when J. Solana was appointed as EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy[10]. Geographical proximity leads to common interests and is therefore helpful in forming an alliance. Neighbouring states often face similar security issues, their economies depend on the same regional markets, climate and environmental concerns are generally related. It is not by chance that the Arabic speaking states created an organisation, called the Arab League, “to strengthen ties among the member states, coordinate their policies, and promote their common interests[11] ”. These countries are geographically related, yet not as geographically close as those in the EU. The Arab League was successful in many areas, although a consensus of its policies could only seldom be reached. It shows that even if Islamic states organise themselves with the clear purpose to unite their interests into common policies, they still fail. Recent history shows they tried this as early as 1943, when “the Egyptian government first proposed [the creation of] the Arab League[12] ”. As a result we can see that even a smaller entity of states which share at least a common language, some elements of culture, and regional proximity, could not attain a pan-Islamic foreign policy. Furthermore in this attempt the other Muslim countries such as Turkmenistan, Turkey and Pakistan, to name only a few, were not included.


[1] Patterson, Gordon M., The Essentials of Medieval History – 500 to 1450 AD – The Middle Ages, Research & Education Association, 1990, p.31


[3] 88% of Uzbekistan, 90 % Mali and 100% of Saudi-Arabia are Muslims; CIA World Factbook

[4] Lapidus, Ira, Turkey Between East and West, Orbis, Fall, 1998, p.7

[5] CIA World Factbook 2001

[6] Tang, Didi, The Politics of Water, Insight, 30.10.2000, p.1

[7] Frankenberger, Klaus-Dieter, Interessen Amerikas in der arabischen Welt in Gefahr , Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 26.4.2002, No.97, p.7

[8] 80% are Muslims in Niger, CIA World Factbook 2001

[9] 88% of the Indonesian population are Muslims, ibid.

[10] European Information Service, More EU Pressure on Belarus for Fair Elections, European Report, 26.7.2000, p.1

[11] MSN Encarta,

[12] ibid.

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Is a pan-Islamic foreign policy possible? What are the possible obstacles and what might facilitate its emergence?
University of St Andrews  (Department of IR)
IR 1006
17 von 20 (A)
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Peter Tilman Schuessler (Author), 2002, Is a pan-Islamic foreign policy possible? What are the possible obstacles and what might facilitate its emergence?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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