For those who can live without alcohol and such staples of daily life as discos, Saudi Arabia would pose few difficulties. Indeed, some may prefer it to locations where the incidence of muggings and theft are greater and Riyadh and Dammam are as modern as Dubai, while even Jeddah has been spruced up over the past few years.
But of course, women are still not allowed to drive or participate in professions seen as male preserves, while throughout the system differing treatment gets meted out to Muslims and non-Muslims, including in matters of compensation. Throughout the Cold War, and despite nine centuries of close contact between parts of India and the Arabian peninsula, Riyadh and Delhi remained distant. This gap was especially apparent over Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia joined with Pakistan and the US through the 1980s to train and fund religiously-motivated resistance fighters against the Soviet occupation forces. India was silent on the invasion by its Cold War ally, the USSR.
So the collapse of the USSR in 1991 ought to have opened the door to Indo-Saudi cooperation, and indeed, a successful visit took place in 2001 with India’s External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh visiting Riyadh. But the events of 9/11 later that year, and the subsequent invasion in 2003 of Iraq, understandably took Saudi attention from India.
However, things have started to change. In 2006, King Abdullah was made the guest of honour at India’s annual Republic Day Parade, and the Saudi entourage returned in a positive mood over the country that their close ally Pakistan loved to hate. Corporations in both countries began partnering with each other, and Riyadh began to pull back on its high-decibel backing for the Kashmiri separatists seeking to delink their state from India. That India was, together with China, the fastest-growing market for petroleum of course did not hurt.
After a BJP-led majority government was voted into office in 1999, military relations between the US and India deepened, and these days, there’s substantial joint activity between all three services. On April 23, the 10-day annual series of Malabar naval war games will start off the western coast of India, involving four US warships and a submarine, and with US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead in attendance. The growing strategic closeness between India and the US has encouraged Saudi Arabia to follow suit, given that the country still relies on Washington for protection from threats such as from Iran.
However, the core of the newfound Indo-Saudi warmth is not military but economic, and is based on India becoming a significant market for Saudi oil, gradually shifting Delhi’s dependence on Iran. From India, the Saudis are looking at education service providers. Seventy percent of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 25, and it’s proving too expensive to rely exclusively on Western institutions for their training.
Although Saudi Arabia still bans the cinema, the efforts of religious hotheads to outlaw TV have not succeeded. Most homes have access to cable, so they can tune in to Bollywood soaps or watch the latest Shahrukh Khan movie on DVDs. After six decades of distance, the Saudis are once more in the process of re-discovering the many cultural links that they have with India.