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Saudi Surprises

By B S Prakash
April 14, 2016 12:46 IST
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'I am hoping that now with the strategic status of our relationship, the Indian voice will get heard in Saudi Arabia,' says Ambassador B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/

A group of women clad from head to toe in black, but faces visible and visibly radiant have surrounded Prime Minister Modi. They are clicking 'selfies,' the ubiquitous, if somewhat silly, phenomenon that defines this age. You have seen the picture. Not only Indians, but the whole world has seen it.

No, they are not wearing a burqa; that is not the Char Minar in the background. Tauba, tauba, they are not wearing a chador, which is what their rivals/sisters in Tehran may wear. These are Saudi women and they are wearing abayas. And hats off to Modi and TCS for making the world see this uncommon sight of the professional Saudi fairer half, who are busy learning coding and debugging in the IT lab.

Who knows, one day, they may learn driving too, though no one knows when that day will dawn.

Lives do change, I told myself, when I saw the picture. Even in Saudi Arabia.

I recalled my time in that country as a young Indian diplomat three decades ago and what my friend Professor Kurien had told me about the prevailing educational practices in that Wahabbi land. Bear with me for a moment, to understand why I an regressing in time from the Modi moment of today.

Kurien taught mathematics at the King Saud University in Riyadh. I was the eager diplomat trying to understand at least a little bit of what made the Saudis tick, and the mysteries that lay behind the very opaque purdah that hid the society from the expatriate eye. I am talking metaphorically here, and not literally, lest I be misunderstood about what I wanted to see.

Kurien told me he was teaching the female students according to the established practices of the university. This meant that he went to a swanky studio on the campus from where his lectures were telecast live. The girl students were in their class room looking at the monitor. He never saw them, but they could not only hear, but see their professor.

All this was routine and was the norm. One day, Kurien came back perspiring, though nattily clad. Why did he seem so nervous, I had to find out. In strict confidence, he told me the cause of his palpitations.

One of the ever-invisible students had told him on the internal line through which they could ask questions: 'Professor, nice tie! You are looking handsome today.' Some prominent Indians had to persuade Kurien from not leaving his job and flying out to Cochin the next day. We understood his vulnerability, of course; but we told him that the offending girl in question was equally in danger.

And from that no-sight and long distance style of learning to the current day of cyber skills and 'selfies' with Modi.

What next? Will they have yoga classes in Jeddah being inaugurated by Ramdev? Unlikely.

I remembered the unwritten rules, from my years, that any form of physical exercise including filling forms or carrying files was only for the expatriates. Forget yoga, even walking on the roads was not allowed for one gender unless accompanied by a close family member of the other gender.

There was the perhaps mythical story of the French ambassador who had gone jogging in the hot and muggy climes of Jeddah. The envoy was new, had a smattering of Arabic, but totally ignorant of local customs.

He was apparently running in his shorts, not carrying his ID. He had been promptly stopped and questioned by the police, whereupon summoning his basic Arabic had started announcing grandly that 'I am the al Safir, the ambassador of al France.'

The Saudi police genuinely believed that only three sets of people ran on the streets: A thief running away from the souk; a person who had lost his mind; or someone escaping from his employer. They had put the Frenchman in the second category and arrested him.

It would be wrong on my part to make you believe that my time in that country was a series of tragi-comic encounters and unbelievable adventures. There was serious work too and myriad achievements amidst the inherent unpredictability of an irrational land.

As I now diligently digest all the outcomes form Modi's visit, I marvel at how all the important aspects of our relationship have strengthened, but also transformed over the decades.

Saudi Arabia was then, and continues to be today, our largest oil supplier. Oil prices had gone through the roof during that period and we were supplicants in a sense, seeking security of supplies. It continues to be a very reliable partner, but today, the world is awash with oil, and the Saudis need consumers as much as we need their exports.

Those days, we had a million strong Indian community in Saudi Arabia, and today we are three times that, and are apparently the largest of the foreign expatriates. There is also meaningful talk of trade, investment, S&T, doing more in meeting the needs in health, education and other services. A more diversified basket and a better balance, overall.

But in addition to all this is that esoteric but substantive dimension: A 'strategic relationship.' The moment you utter that word, you enter a mysterious world of political understanding, defence cooperation and even intelligence sharing.

We have reached that state: 'India is a privileged partner with Saudi Arabia, even more than Pakistan,' I read in commentaries by our experts.

If this is true, and I have no reasons to doubt it, then it is indeed an achievement. It is certainly a departure from the conventional wisdom during my time, when the common perception was that the bonds of religion conferred a special status to the Pakistani as compared to the Indian, at least at the working level.

That the reality is more complex had been brought home to me by one of our longstanding residents and I have to end this narrative with his theory of how the Saudi system operated for the common man.

One day, I was fretting in the car, as I had not carried my diplomatic card while driving on the road to Mecca (though not to Mecca, as that was not permissible for a non-Muslim).

"Don't worry. The Saudi traffic police will not bother too much with the documents. They have their own system, in case of accidents," my experienced companion told me.

"How? What do they do?"

"They go on the basis of who is involved, not on what has happened," he said patiently.

"What do you mean?"

"An accident between two Saudis is rare. Most have drivers."

"Fine, but what about accidents involving foreigners, the majority on the roads?" I had to ask.

"If the accident is between a Saudi and a white expatriate, the Saudi is right, even if the white man is the vice-president of Boeing. Next, if it is between a white man and the brown man, say a Pakistani or an Indian, then the white man is right and the Asian is guilty, whatever has happened."

"It is only when the accident is between two brown men that they ask for your nationality. And then, the Pakistani is right and the Indian is wrong." he concluded giving me a new insight about the level when the brotherhood of religion becomes relevant.

I am hoping that now with the strategic status of our relationship, the Indian voice -- of the driver -- will get heard.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador and a long-standing Rediff columnist.

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