Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to Saudi Arabia again – his second trip in four years that many see as having the potential to solve India’s Kashmir issue. The cosying up between Riyadh and New Delhi is a signal to Pakistan that countries symbolising the Muslim ummah now stand with India instead.
The problem, however, is that the new Saudi Arabia is very different from even the pre-2010 one. Led by an ambitious, young, modern leader, who wants to modernise the state and westernise it culturally, does not have the same legitimacy in the Muslim world anymore. The Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is trying hard to do a balancing act, silencing the religious Right through oppression by gagging noted Saudi religious scholars while depending on some traditions in order to not entirely lose political legitimacy.
Therefore, despite that Israeli aircraft flying in and out of Riyadh and efforts of US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, one of the chief architects of Trump’s Middle East peace plan and a close friend of the crown prince, Palestine continues to be mentioned in the officially transmitted prayers, especially in Mecca and Medina. Similarly, as I observed myself, writings of the former grand mufti, the rabid, although pragmatic, Sheikh Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz, are still available in the two holy cities.
The desire for modernity among Saudi rulers is not new. It dates back to the first ruler of the Saudi state, Muhammad ibn Saud, who established a nation-state in the Arabian Peninsula in 1932. His sons, including King Faisal, who was killed by his own nephew in 1975, faced opposition by the religious clergy for his perceived sin of bringing modern technology in Saudi Arabia. Faisal’s wife Iffat al-Thunayan opened schools for women. Clearly, the incumbent crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, popularly known as MbS and considered the de facto king, wants to take development several notches higher and is brutal in his pursuit of power.
Only a good business partner
His political ambitions make India an attractive destination for Riyadh. Unlike Pakistan, which wants Saudi money but is shy of a total embrace because it could have high costs for the country’s security, Riyadh’s relationship with New Delhi can actually work.
Indian Muslims do not necessarily pose an ideological burden on Saudi Arabia as compared to Pakistan’s. Riyadh will never want to be burdened with claims of infesting India with radicalism, an accusation it hears from Pakistan. Moreover, Modi’s India has little qualms about engaging with Saudi Arabia riddled with accusations of human rights atrocities. This makes India similar to Pakistan but different from a number of western states.
Not surprisingly, Saudi Aramco agreed to invest reportedly US$ 15 billion into Reliance Industries. In business terms, this is a major breakthrough as it brought the largest foreign investment project in India without threatening the Ambani empire. No wonder New Delhi is ready to put its eggs in the Saudi basket and temporarily abandon the Chabahar project in Iran.
The continuation of this sheen in New Delhi and Riyadh’s relationship depends upon money in Indian pockets. But it is also worth remembering that MbS has other priorities too. He can ignore and snub Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan by not inviting him to his ‘Davos in the Desert’ and instead invite Narendra Modi, but he is not about to sideline his military ties with the Pakistan armed forces. Not only does he have a retired Pakistani general at his beck and call, MbS also has good ties with Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Lest we forget, MbS played a key role in arranging Imran Khan’s meeting in July this year with Donald Trump, which in reality was a meeting between Trump and Bajwa. The general was equally cool with his prime minister getting a cold shoulder.
In any case, Pakistan military is well-entrenched in the system of securing Saudi royalty for decades, which may be one of the reasons that Riyadh did not shun Islamabad despite the latter’s refusal to fight openly in Yemen, and not take a clear position against Iran.
Saudi Arabia not the inspiration
Can Saudi Arabia help solve the Kashmir issue? An MbS-led Saudi Arabia does not have legitimacy in the larger Islamic world despite physically being at the centre of the Muslim ideological imagination.
Today, the ordinary South Asian Muslim may be more thrilled by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad than MbS. Mahathir’s condemnation of the situation in Kashmir and not bowing down to India’s pressure of cancelling palm oil import has already enhanced his international credibility. Some would even put Imran Khan in the same list. Not that these leaders are above board but the point being made here is that Saudi Arabia is in no position to influence the thinking of ordinary Muslims or alter the religio-political discourse in the Islamic world.
While Saudi Arabia’s efforts to distance itself from its staple Wahabi ideology may open doors for Muslim states and Muslim citizens to think deeply about the concept of Islamic nationalism, the idea of ummah has not died entirely. It probably requires an intelligent and organic discourse that is yet to take place. The absence of a strong entity or a forum in the Islamic world that has legitimate capacity to engage with issues faced by Muslims across the world could create greater space for non-state militant entities, or simply nourish frustration.
The Indian or for that matter a Kashmiri Muslim, on the other hand, wouldn’t be inspired by an oppressive prince as they are increasingly feeling more scared, disenfranchised and unrepresented in India. It’s a fact that the number of Muslim representatives in the Indian Parliament is nowhere close to being proportionate to their share in the country’s population. The Muslim representation in the Indian military has also reduced. For Muslims in India, their conditions are a greater influence than ideology.
Moreover, once in Saudi Arabia, the Indian Muslim, due to sharing a common language, is far closer to a Pakistani Muslim than Muslims from other parts of the world. I recall my own experience of sitting in the mosque of the Prophet in Medina in a group that had women from different parts of Pakistan and India (including from Kerala) as we were all identified as belonging to the same language category – Urdu.
Not that engaging Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States is not a worthwhile policy. However, India should value Saudi Arabia for capital gains rather than for political and ideological troubleshooting. India will have to look inside to find a solution to its Muslim issue.
The author is Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and author of Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She tweets as @iamthedrifter. Views are personal.