It is possible at once to both exaggerate and minimise the significance of the invitation extended to India to be the guest of honour at the 46th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi on March 1-2.

There is a common belief that the grouping – an international organisation of 57 member states, which describes itself as “the collective voice of the Muslim world” – is just a talking shop. The invitation to India may also be interpreted to be of monumental importance to its foreign policy. Neither assumption is quite valid even though there could be some truth in both.

It is true that through the past 50 years, New Delhi has learnt to live with the organisation’s periodic diatribes against India over Kashmir, or the plight of the Indian Muslim. Delhi put on a brave face when in summit after summit, the grouping’s member states threw barbs at India.

It is also true that a clutch of the grouping’s members piloted these moves against India – principally, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – while the bulk passively watched from the sidelines.

Working behind the scenes, Indian diplomats constantly tried to whittle down the Organisation of Islamic Conference’s negativism towards India, while adopting an indifferent look for public consumption.

The high noon of the grouping’s pressure on India was in the early 1990s when the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 and the massive social and political upheaval that followed, coalesced with the bloody insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir, and led to concerns regarding the welfare of the Indian Muslim.

It peaked in early 1995 when the Organisation of Islamic Conference – which has permanent delegations in the United Nations – all but sponsored a resolution condemning India for grave human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Delhi had to solicit Iran’s help to break the grouping’s solidarity and defeat the proposed move (which also enjoyed much backing from the West.)

The humiliating setback at Geneva dampened the Organisation of Islamic Conference’s momentum, which it never recovered from.

Suffice to say, the invitation the Organisation of Islamic Conference has extended to India to address the Abu Dhabi summit is a natural culmination of its realisation over time that it was futile to travel on the beaten path to nowhere in particular.

Time for change

Having said that, the Organisation of Islamic Conference itself is in transition today, and in some ways, the invitation to India is a marker of that process. Broadly, pan-Islamism is passé. Great schisms have appeared within the Islamic community of nations, especially after the Arab Spring first appeared in 2010.

The current tensions between and involving Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on one side and Turkey, Iran and Qatar on the other is only one example of political Islam tugging at the heartstrings of the Muslim mind.

More importantly, the world order has phenomenally transformed. Thus, despite a robust Western campaign regarding so-called “internment camps” for Muslims in Xinjiang, China, the Organisation of Islamic Conference has refused to take note of it.

In fact, during his visit to Beijing on February 21 as part of his Asian tour, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told President Xi Jinping, “We respect and support China’s rights to take counter-terrorism and de-extremism measures to safeguard national security. We stand ready to strengthen cooperation with China.”

Delhi’s experience with the Saudi crown prince during his visit last week was no different. The ruler had visited Pakistan before India. There was no reference to Kashmir in his joint statements either with Prime Minister Narendra Modi or with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Recapitulating the crown prince’s Asian tour, the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat wrote on Monday that the tour “asserts that Saudi Arabia is capable of strengthening its relationship with opposing forces or even adversaries, as it does with India and Pakistan…(and) openly declares its strategy based on the policy of mutual interests; the more you gain from this partnership, the greater the gains of the other party”.

This is important because the Organisation of Islamic Conference decisions carry the Saudi imprimatur and reflect the Saudi world view. The organisation’s invitation to India clearly has Saudi approval, which also explains Pakistan’s acquiescence to it.

Saudi Arabia’s intentions

What are the Saudi intentions? First and foremost, if the Organisation of Islamic Conference is in transition, it is because Saudi Arabia itself is in transition. It is no small matter that a woman – Princess Reema bint Bandar al-Saud, the daughter of a former envoy to the United States – will represent the Kingdom as its ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary in Washington, DC.

Reforms in Saudi Arabia are appearing in driblets and are yet to become torrential – and Saudis may not even want to repeat the Shah’s mistake in Iran in the 1970s or Mikhail Gorbachev’s in the 1980s – but a new sense of direction is nonetheless palpable.

Meanwhile, the alchemy of US-Saudi relations is also changing and the crown prince’s Asian tour signifies an acceleration of the kingdom’s nascent “Look East” foreign policy. Alongside comes an ambitious programme under the rubric Vision 2030, which, in a nutshell, aims to modernise Saudi Arabia, its society and economy, and relaunch the kingdom on a trajectory akin to the United Arab Emirates.

Clearly, the Organisation of Islamic Conference no longer serves the purpose of Saudi aspirations if it lacks contemporaneity and remains stuck on the old grooves of pan-Islamic identity and notions thereof.

Some imagination needed

From the Indian perspective, therefore, the organisation increasingly presents a congenial milieu. The real challenge lies ahead in making use of the forum optimally. Three things must be borne in mind.

First, India holds a trump card in the growing perception of the international community that it is a future growth centre and potential locomotive of the world economy.

If India goes about it with imagination, the Organisation of Islamic Conference can meet India’s regional and global aspirations far more optimally than our membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which is ultimately a Chinese-Russian condominium in New Cold War conditions.

Second, the Organisation of Islamic Conference, like the Arab League or the Gulf Cooperation Council, is already reeling under the after-effects of the divides in West Asia. India should steer clear of such tremors, which do not fundamentally concern Indian interests. India needs both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well as Qatar and Iran. Besides, the quarrels within the West Asian family are often instigated by outsiders and they have a history of dying down as abruptly as they erupt. The present high tide will also pass.

Third, the Organisation of Islamic Conference’s utility for Pakistan to berate India is indeed ending even for propaganda purposes and India too should not get entrapped in shadow plays that are wasteful.

India’s interests are best served if it creates positive energy within the grouping by its sheer presence and its contributions, which bring into play its vast experience in leadership roles in a multilateral setting.

Finally, India should work towards getting an observer status with the Organisation of Islamic Conference, such as Russia has. Full membership is possible only if the grouping’s Charter is amended.

However, in the near term, there is a door that India has not opened. New Delhi can remind the grouping that India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations. This, of course, requires an enlightened leadership in Delhi that will comprehend the tantalising possibilities of projecting India as a vibrant participant in a world community of Muslim nations.