By C Uday Bhaskar
The demise of the ailing Saudi Arabian monarch king Abdullah is a significant punctuation for the desert kingdom, the Arab-West Asian region and the extended Islamic world, which in turn has larger global implications. The royal transition has been effected and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud has taken over the reins of the kingdom. In keeping with local practice, shorn of titles and pomp, Abdullah was buried in an unmarked grave.
Stability in Saudi Arabia is of considerable international significance and the first jitters were felt in the oil market when prices rose as soon as news king Abdullah’s demise of was formally announced – but the expected transition has calmed the waters.
For India, the Saudi kingdom has multiple relevance that includes Riyadh’s profile as a major energy supplier, the presence of almost three million Indian expatriates in that country and the status of the Saudi monarch in the politics and ideologies that currently animate the Muslim world. At a time when Delhi is preparing to receive US President Barack Obama as chief guest for the Republic Day parade, it may be recalled that king Abdullah was the chief guest for the same event in January 2006 and this was as unprecedented and noteworthy as the current Obama visit.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s primacy in the oil world, India’s hydrocarbon dependency and the magnet that the desert kingdom is to the Indian expat worker, the high-level political contact between India and Saudi Arabia has been modest.
The Abdullah visit in 2006 was a diplomatic landmark in the bilateral relationship and this was reflected in the Delhi Declaration signed at that time. The normally reticent Abdullah referred to India as his “second home” and the content of the agreement acquired greater resonance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Saudi role in that tectonic event. Subsequently then prime minister Manmohan Singh visited Riyadh in 2010 leading to the Riyadh Declaration testifying to the importance that the two countries attached to the bilateral relationship.
This was further strengthened by the visit of then crown prince and now King Salman in February 2014.
It is instructive to note that King Salman, after mourning the demise of his brother Abdullah, in his first remarks, assured both his people and the world at large that there would be an essential continuity in the policies of the kingdom and that the Abdullah orientation would continue. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” King Salman declared on state television.
This is an important reiteration both for Saudi Arabia and its many interlocutors that include its benefactor – the USA, as also countries like Egypt and Turkey, the Gulf states, Israel, – and India, amongst others. In keeping with the Saudi practice of succession, Abdullah became the crown prince and the first deputy prime minister in 1982 when king Fahd succeeded king Khalid. He then assumed the throne in August 2005 following the death of king Fahd though he was the de-facto ruler since 1995.
In summary, Abdullah was both witness to and a key player in some of the more tumultuous events of the last three decades that included the overthrow of the shah of Iran and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that heralded the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the USSR. The Saudi role in funding the Afghan mujahedin during the 1980s sowed the seeds for many of the ideological challenges that confronted the Saudi monarchy in later years, including the enormity of 9/11 and the fact that a majority of the perpetrators who brought down the Twin Towers were Saudi citizens.
King Abdullah’s political acumen was severely tested in the aftermath of 9/11 and, to his credit, he was able to arrive at an uneasy rapprochement with the US even while attempting to domestically quarantine the Osama bin Laden fervor that had engulfed larger sections of the Arab world.
A tempered moderate who embarked upon a cautious programme of modernization, king Abdullah, in the last decade, has been dealing with what has been aptly described as ‘The Islamic Boomerang’ in a 2004 volume authored by Vice President Hamid Ansari (A fromer Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia). The Sunni-Shia contestation that has become the tragic Syrian quagmire and the virulence of the IS (Islamic State) are the most recent manifestations of the robust propagation of Sunni-Wahabi Islam that began in the early 1980s with active Saudi funding. The consequences of that initiative clearly troubled king Abdullah over the years and one can discern a quiet course correction that he supported with a focus on inter-faith dialogues and reconciliation.
This was discernible when then crown prince and now King Salman visited Delhi in early 2014 and the emphasis was on the need to forge a consensus within Islam and eschew the many fissures that had emerged. As global leaders converge on Riyadh to offer their condolences to the Saudi royal family, the backdrop of both Paris and Peshawar serve as reminders of the radical Islamist ‘boomerang’ effect. And this perhaps will be one of the principal strands for deliberation during the Obama visit this week.