On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi broke protocol to receive Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the airport instead of welcoming him in the compound of the Rashtrapati Bhavan as is usually done. The details of the prince’s schedule do not seem to be in the public domain, so it is not known what other gestures will be accorded to him during his two-day visit.
According a warm and gracious welcome to a visiting head of state or a high dignitary is obviously a very good practice. By all accounts, Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz is the most powerful person in Saudi Arabia, with the possible exception of the king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. So offering him a grand welcome would normally be quite justifiable. However, things are not that simple. The most powerful person in a very wealthy kingdom has many facets to him, three of which deserve special attention.
Human rights record
The first is Jamal Khashoggi, who has been described as “committed, courageous journalist” by one of his former colleagues. He was a veteran Saudi journalist based in the US and used to write a column for The Washington Post. He had previously been the
General Manager and Editor-in-Chief of Al-Arab news channel, and had also worked as the Editor for the Saudi newspaper, Al Watan.
Another of his former colleagues said, “He lamented that Saudi Arabia’s repression was becoming unbearable to the point of his decision to leave the country and live in exile in Washington.”
There seems to be a global consensus that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul when he had gone there to get a marriage certificate on October 2. It is also believed that his body was dismembered and possibly dissolved in acid and the resulting liquid was poured down the drain. Overwhelming circumstantial evidence shows that the execution was ordered by the government of Saudi Arabia.
A report in The Washington Post on November 18, opens with the sentence, “The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last month, contradicting the Saudi government’s claims that he was not involved in the killing, according to people familiar with the matter.” The report goes on to provide details of the evidence that the US Central Intelligence was believed to have taken into consideration before coming to this conclusion.
Against The Washington Post report, there is a statement issued by US President Donald Trump, on November 20. I think the following paragraphs capture the essence of Donald Trump’s view on the subject:
“After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors...
“Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!
“That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!
“After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!”
It is clear from this statement that the US President has decided to put the economic interests of the US above anything else including the premeditated murder and barbaric disposal of the dead body of a citizen of the country that carried out the act.
It raises the question: Is Saudi Arabia’s friendship so important to India’s economic and strategic interests that the country of Buddha and Ashoka should go out of its way to be overly gracious, bordering on obsequiousness instead of according the conventional kind of welcome that is extended to various heads of state and government who have visited India over the last several years?
The Pakistan factor
This leads us into the second issue: How important is the goodwill of Saudi Arabia to India? One response to this issue is provided by Mohammed Ayoob, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations at the Michigan State University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Center for Global Policy, Washington DC.
“In the context of this strategic and economic nexus between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it will be unwise for New Delhi to seriously believe that it will be able to wean Saudi Arabia away from Pakistan,” Mohammed Ayoob concludes. “India should take advantage of any benefit that accrues from India’s economic relations with Saudi Arabia but should not pin much hope on Riyadh in the political-strategic sphere.” Does this require going out of the way to pander to the ego of a man who might possibly have had a hand in such a gruesome killing? Or would usual courtesies have been enough to “take advantage of any benefit that accrues from India’s economic relations with Saudi Arabia?”
Support for fundamentalism
The third issue has to do with an internal struggle that appears to be going on within Islam in terms of Wahabism and Salafism. It is also believed that currently Wahabism is on the ascent because of the financial and other kinds of support that the rulers of Saudi Arabia continue to provide. This support obviously became more effective with increasing oil revenues.
All indications seem to be that the differences between Wahabism and Salafism are rather subtle. A statement that seems to describe it well is: “As a general rule, all Wahabis are Salafists but all Salafists are not Wahabis.” The origins of Salafism are traced to the 13th century whereas Wahabism is believed to have been originated in the 18th century in the central region of the Arabian Peninsula called Najd and its founder is believed to be Mohammad Ibn Abdul-Wahhab (1703-’92). He is believed to have formed a pact with a local leader, Muhammad bin Saud. This pact, over time, is believed to have led to the formation of the House of Saud, which has continued to rule over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia since it proclamation in 1932.
Saudi Arabia is considered to be the primary supporter of a supposedly more rigid interpretation of Islam. This may also have implications for how Islam functions in India.
This is the context that makes one wonder if the exuberant welcome to the Crown Prince was really necessary.
Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of IIM, Ahmedabad. Views are personal.