If some country is a good friend of Pakistan, can it also be a genuine friend of India – and vice versa? Is it desirable for India and Pakistan, South Asia’s two neighbours locked in perennial hostility, to have friends in the world who can have a reconciliatory talk with both?
Sadly, there are people on both sides of the border who would answer these questions in the negative. This simplistic, self-defeating and deeply flawed mindset of many Indians and Pakistanis was on display when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia (MbS as he is widely known) paid almost back-to-back visits to Islamabad and New Delhi. Officially, he received grand and protocol-breaking welcome by Prime Ministers Imran Khan and Narendra Modi, the like of which the putative Saudi ruler has certainly not experienced in the West. However, unofficially, the anti-Pakistan constituency in India and the anti-India constituency in Pakistan viewed the whole spectacle with considerable skepticism and scorn.
The atmosphere of doubt and disapproval was thicker in India. Critics and even supporters of Modi had angry questions on their minds: why should our prime minister have gone to the airport and received a dignitary who is not a head of state or government? More importantly, how did this guest, who had announced a $20 billion investment in Pakistan during his visit to that “enemy” country just two days earlier, deserve a jovial embrace? Hadn’t MbS declared in Islamabad that Pakistanis should regard him as their own “ambassador in Saudi Arabia”? Even though Modi’s supporters did not directly criticise him, they did vent out their anger on social media: how can the ruler of a country that professes, and spreads, Wahhabism be a friend of India?
Coming within a week of the ghastly terrorist attack in Pulwama, Kashmir, in which 42 CRPF were martyred – a week in which Modi repeatedly announced his resolve to teach Pakistan a befitting lesson – his gushing welcome to the young crown prince has caused considerable confusion in India. In Pakistan, many have wondered: how can we trust the future “custodian of the two holy mosques” who almost immediately after coming to Islamabad visits our “enemy” country, embraces its “anti-Muslim” prime minister, and announces a much bigger investment ($100 billion) in India?
I am no fan of Modi, but I have no doubt he has done the right thing in befriending Saudi Arabia and elevating Indo-Saudi friendship to the level of a very important “strategic partnership” in the 21st century. For me, far more important than the impressive size of the economic and energy cooperation between our two countries is the fact that Saudi Arabia, as a friend of both India and Pakistan, can potentially play a very useful role in encouraging a peace-promoting dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad. In the long run, it can even contribute significantly to eliminating the scourge of religious extremism and terrorism in the South Asian region.
A holistic view
What is the basis of my optimism? At play here are several factors with intrinsic synergy in them. We can better understand these factors if we understand a basic philosophical truth.
In life, as in the life of nations, answers to complex questions rarely present themselves in clear black and white terms. Most problems in international relations have multiple, mutually influencing and even seemingly contradictory dimensions. Moreover, these relations and realities are not static; they keep changing. There is a line in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterpiece Faust which is very relevant in this context: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” Therefore, when we want to understand and solve a problem, we should never approach it dogmatically – that is, unidirectionally. We should study it from a dynamic and 360-degree perspective. We should wisely tackle its different dimensions, both separately and together, so that the apparent contradictions can be aligned in a convergent manner to achieve the desired common purpose.
Let me therefore identify five dimensions where not only India-Saudi interests converge but where, more to the point, India-Pakistan-Saudi interests can also converge in the future.
The first dimension is the very mature and constructive Saudi response to the evil act in Pulwama, which was most certainly carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist organisation that operates freely in Pakistan. Even though the India-Saudi joint statement did not mention either Jaish or Pakistan, it left none in any doubt by stating: “Both sides called on all states to reject the use of terrorism against other countries; dismantle terrorism infrastructures where they happen to exist and to cut off any kind of support and financing to the terrorists perpetrating terrorism from all territories against other states; and bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice”.
In other words, Saudi Arabia has indirectly backed a key Indian demand that the United Nations Security Council declare Masood Azar “a global terrorist” – which almost looks a certainty now.
An uncompromising stance
The second dimension is that Saudi Arabia has taken this positive stance without alienating Pakistan, its traditional friend and ally in the Muslim world. It has, of course, used the considerable economic-political leverage it has over Pakistan, which is currently going through its worst financial crisis. But, through behind-the-scenes communications, it has counselled military and civilian leaders in Islamabad that peace with India and stability in the region are in Pakistan’s own interest. Look at the initial action Khan’s government has been forced to take against anti-India terror groups operating from Pakistani soil. Whether it will act against these “good terrorists” (who are targeting India) as decisively as it has done against “bad terrorists” (who targeted Pakistan and caused “70,000 deaths”, as Khan put it) is yet to be seen. But Saudi pressure (also pressure from the Chinese) is certainly at work here. Significantly, the Saudi-Pakistan joint statement included a key affirmation Khan has been making – namely, all issues between India and Pakistan should be resolved through dialogue.
The third dimension – and this has contributed enormously to the above two – is that Saudi Arabia under MbS has been moving away from its foundational ideology of religious extremism, which fuels terrorism globally. As many as 15 of the 19 hijackers who carried out the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States were Saudi citizens, as was their mastermind, Osama bin Laden. MbS sees Al-Qaeda, ISIS and Muslim Brotherhood as threats not only to the monarchy in his country, but also as a menace to the whole world. He may not be a paragon of all virtues, but what the 33-year-old Saudi leader said in his lengthy interview to Time magazine in April 2018 deserves careful attention. “All those extremist groups, terrorists targeting our country to recruit more from our country, spread their ideology in our country because they want it to be spread around the world. We are on the front line because they cannot continue recruiting people and spreading ideology if they cannot do it in Saudi Arabia, if we stood up and fight the war. And we are doing that today in Saudi Arabia.”
By now, all sane people in the world have realised that simply killing terrorists does not yield the desired result of killing terrorism. To achieve this end, what is also necessary is a determined fight against the distorted interpretation of Islam that is fuelling terrorism. MbS explains this in his interview, “So fighting extremism is not only by going against them; but spreading moderation is part of it.” His multipronged strategy includes: a media strategy; education reforms; and stern laws. “If you want to fight them, you have to put them as a criminal in your laws,” he argues.
If this is what MbS thinks, can there be any doubt that he will not urge Pakistan to regard Jaish and its leader Masood Azar as “criminals” and take action against them?
No petrodollar support
The fourth dimension is the likely long-term effect of a crackdown on Islamist extremism by Saudi Arabia and other influential Muslim nations such as the United Arab Emirates. (On how the UAE is promoting tolerance, read: As Pope Francis, Grand Imam vow to open new chapter of religious harmony in UAE, India falls short.) Look, for example, at what could happen to madrassas that have mushroomed in Pakistan (and in many other Muslim countries) thanks to the export Wahhabi Islam with the help of a flood of petrodollars. “At independence in 1947, there were only 137 madrassas in Pakistan,” notes the Pakistani writer Zahid Hussain in his hard-hitting book Frontline Pakistan: The Path to Catastrophe and the Killing of Benazir Bhutto. Today, according to Islamabad’s own official estimate from 2018, there are 32,000 madrassas, including the unregistered ones, and approximately 3.5 million students are enrolled in them.
None other than Pakistan’s Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has voiced serious concern about the extremist ideology taught in many of his country’s religious schools. In a speech in Quetta in 2007, he said, “I am not against madrassas, but we have lost the essence of madrassas. So what will they [students from madrassas] become: will they become maulvis [clerics] or will they become terrorists? We need to revisit the concept of madrassas...We need to give them a worldly education.”
UAE’s ruler and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed (known as MbZ), has launched a fund to promote religious tolerance worldwide, with the specific goal of de-radicalising youth influenced by extremist ideologies. MbS, who supposedly regards 57-year-old MbZ as his mentor, should establish a similar fund – and he might well do so soon.
Promoting communal harmony
Here then is the fifth dimension of Saudi Arabia becoming a friend of both India and Pakistan – its positive impact on communal harmony in both India and Pakistan. For a long time, the anti-Muslim Hindutva forces in our country have seen Saudi Arabia with deep suspicion, as the fountainhead of Islamist fanaticism. There is some truth in this, but the reality, happily, is changing. When the prime minister belonging to a Hindutva party meets the Saudi crown prince three times within a span of less than three years – first in Riyadh in 2016, then at the G20 summit in Argentina last year, and now with a warm welcome in New Delhi – it confirms that even a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has begun to view Saudi Arabia far more seriously than anyone could have imagined in the past.
Similarly, when the crown prince calls Modi his “elder brother”, the honour is not so much to a particular person as to the Indian nation as a whole. Given the unique place Saudi Arabia occupies in the Umma, the worldwide Muslim community, there is absolutely no doubt many Hindu followers of Modi – not to speak of many Muslims in India − will begin to view reforms in Saudi favourably.
Over time, this is sure to have a welcome impact on Hindu-Muslim conversation within India, once the divisive election atmosphere disappears. It will also have a salutary effect on India-Pakistan relations in the coming times, once the civil-military establishment in Islamabad takes decisive action against Jaish and all other terror organisations operating from Pakistani soil, and India corrects its human rights violations in Kashmir, leading, ultimately, to an amicable solution to the vexed Jammu and Kashmir issue.
Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He is the founder of Forum for a New South Asia, which advocates friendly and cooperative ties connecting India, Pakistan and China.