Centuries-Old Bonhomie Missing in Saudi Prince’s Visit to India

The day-long visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) was a damp squib of sorts.

Against the backdrop of the outrageous Pulwama killings and MBS’ state visit to Pakistan, the centuries-old bonhomie was missing even as the two sides went on to sign some key agreements in the field of economy, security and defence.

A warm hug, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move to break protocol and the musical extravaganza consisting of lag jaa galey from ‘Woh Kaun Thi’ could lift spirits, but what was really disheartening was the absence of any reference to Pakistan in the joint declaration.

The South Block may go on pointing at diplomatic nuances and niceties but politically, this omission will go a long way in influencing public opinion.

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In diplomatic and political circles, there was a buzz that MBS had agreed to Delhi’s request to not come directly from Islamabad and fostered the idea that Saudi Arabia will take a sincere note of India’s grievance against Pakistan.

There was near absence of words that may have comforted an agitated and grieving nation, and made Saudi resolve against terrorism far more genuine.

Why Congress Is at Fault Too

The Congress is at fault for nit-picking. After all, there have been many occasions when Congress prime ministers, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, have given protocol a miss.

Manmohan Singh, for instance, had set aside protocol for airport visits to welcome Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (2006), former US presidents George W Bush (2006) and Barrack Obama (2010), ex-Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala (2006) and Japanese Emperor Akihito (2013).

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Disillusionment With MBS

Both Riyadh and New Delhi need to recognise that there is disgruntlement. Images of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan driving and laughing with the Saudi Crown Prince in the company of Pakistan Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa will be etched in the minds of grief-stricken Indians who are mourning the deaths of 45 bravehearts.

MBS may have described PM Modi as his elder brother but there were virtually no takers among the huge constituency of followers that Modi commands.

Paradoxically, Indian Muslims, particularly Wahabi Sunnis who are considered to be die-hard conservatives, are disillusioned with MBS for opening cinema halls and allowing musical concerts in Saudi Arabia.

More than giving liberty and freedom to women, Indian Muslim groups and clergy, specifically the Barelvi sect, are upset about alleged destruction of places of religious significance in holy towns of Mecca and Madina.

Indian Shias also have a grouse on account of deteriorating Saudi-Iranian ties and some of the restrictions that Shia pilgrims allegedly encounter while visiting Saudi Arabia.

Among the liberals, Crown Prince Salman is a pariah of sorts after the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. WhatsApp groups are still flooded with videos of details on how Khashoggi, a fierce critic of the Prince, was cruelly butchered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. These images have made him less than reverential, even among those who used to be in awe of the House of Saud, custodians of Mecca and Madina.

Also Read: ‘Terrorism a Common Concern’: Saudi Crown Prince on India Visit

Previous Visits by Saudi Kings

King Abdul Aziz bin Saud had visited India in 1955. Bombay (now Mumbai) Municipal Corporation had given him a rousing reception that was attended by then Chief Minister Morarji Desai.

He was given similar receptions by the Maharaja of Benaras; at the Aligarh Muslim University; in Bengaluru, Mysore, Hyderabad, and the National Defence Academy at Khadakvasla, where the King had handed over a sword made of gold to the Indian Army.

At Delhi’s Jama Masjid, there was a near stampede to have a dekko of the visiting King. Throughout his stay, people used to stand in queues on both sides of the road to pay their respects to him every time he ventured out in Delhi, Hyderabad, Bombay, Mysore, etc, on an elephant, a horse carriage or a car.

Late Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited the Kingdom in 1956. Twenty six years later, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi went to Saudi Arabia to further boost bilateral relations. In recent times, the historic visit of King Abdullah to India in 2006 resulted in the signing of ‘Delhi Declaration’ that imparted fresh momentum to the relationship between the two countries.

King Abdullah reportedly wanted to fund minor renovation of Delhi’s 17th century Jama Masjid. The move was subsequently shelved as the mosque, built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, is classified as a historical monument and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India

Also Read: Debate: India-Saudi Arabia Ties in The Aftermath of Pulwama Attack

King Abdullah was also the guest of honour on India’s Republic Day. Just like PM Modi, Dr Manmohan Singh had broken protocol to personally receive the visiting dignitary.

Touched by the gesture, the King had remarked, “I consider myself to be in my second homeland.”

For many in the South Block, the visit provided a framework for cooperation in all fields of mutual interest.

The reciprocal visit by Manmohan Singh to Saudi Arabia in 2010 raised the level of bilateral engagement to ‘Strategic Partnership’ and the ‘Riyadh Declaration’ captured the spirit of enhanced cooperation in political, economic, security and defence realms.

While addressing a gathering in Riyadh, Singh began by saying, “Ladies and gentlemen... ”

Many heads turned as Saudis could spot only two women in the entire hall – Manmohan Singh’s wife Gursharan Kaur and senior foreign office diplomat Sujatha Singh.

(Rasheed Kidwai is the author of ‘24, Akbar Road, Ballot’ and ‘Sonia: a Biography’. He is a Visiting Fellow at the ORF. He tweets at @rasheedkidwai. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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