Saudi Arabia is worried about Iran’s growing influence in India and Tehran’s outreach to the Shia community in the country, according to diplomatic documents released by WikiLeaks last week. Secretariat General of the Muslim World League (Mecca), a controversial organisation with terror funding links, had requested Saudi Arabia to establish the organisation’s Salafi/Wahhabi centres in India, the documents show. And while Riyadh desired to improve relations with India, it was also cognisant of issues that may be sensitive to Pakistan.
The dump of diplomatic documents that these revelations are part of, allegedly from the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), were released by WikiLeaks on Friday. These documents are in Arabic and provide a greater insight into Saudi Arabia’s thinking on India than the English-language ones, which feature routine diplomaticcommunications.
Rohan Joshi, US-based Fellow of The Takshashila Institution, who studied these Arabic-language documents, says, “While the English-language documents that appeared on WikiLeaks tended to be mundane diplomatic exchanges between the Indian Embassy in Riyadh and Saudi Arabia’s MOFA, the Arabic-language documents (many authored by Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in New Delhi) appear to underscore Saudi Arabia’s deep concern over Iran’s increased economic and cultural engagement with India and India’s Shia community.”
The information on increasing Iranian influence in India comes from two separate reports. The first one is from the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi, dated January 23, 2012; the other is from the Saudi MOFA. The date on the second memo is left blank; but going by the body of the report it appears to have been drafted in 2011-12.
Both these reports clearly show that the Saudis very closely monitor Iranian and Shia activity in India.
The January 2012 report (incomplete) from the Saudi Embassy in New Delhi harps on Iran’s growing influence in India by providing examples of outreach by Iran to Shia communities in the country. It gives examples of seminars and events organised in India by the Iranians. The report also talks about Iran’s plans to establish a large number of cultural centres in India.
As per the 2001 census, Muslims form 13.4 per cent of India’s population. Though no official numbers exist, Pew Research Center has estimated that 16 million to 24 million of India’s Muslims are of Shia denomination. Iran has had linguistic, cultural and historical ties with India which go back to the Mughal era. These relations have not been limited to Shias in India, and Iran’s ability to mine that familiarity and goodwill seems to be troubling the Saudis.
Unlike the Arab countries, differences between Shias and Sunnis in India are doctrinal, and mainly in areas such as ritual law, theology and religious organisation. Relations between the two sects in India have largely remained unaffected from the blowback of the violent conflicts unfolding in the Middle East.
The undated Saudi MOFA report is a partial review of India’s foreign policy in the region. It says that India considers itself a competitor to China and is cosy with the West, but there is a powerful lobby in India to maintain strategic independence in foreign policy. It dwells over Iran-India cooperation, especially in trade. India and Iran may work together in Afghanistan to curtain Pakistan’s influence after the US leaves, the Saudi MOFA report adds.
India has always maintained a friendly relationship with Iran, even after Western countries had imposed sanctions against Tehran for pursuing nuclear enrichment. Besides being a lead supplier of crude oil, a friendly Iran provides India with access to landlocked Afghanistan, which has been denied by Pakistan.
Another memo from the Saudi MOFA, written in 2010, harps on the importance and priority that Saudi Arabia places on improving relations with India. It also underscores the fact that the directive to improve relations with India does not contradict the need to take into account issues that may be sensitive to Pakistan.
Another (incomplete) document is on the establishment of a Salafi Centre in India is a request to Riyadh from the Secretariat General of the Muslim World League (Mecca). The date written isn’t clearly legible, but looks to be 2012. The league was looking to establish an institution called The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Centre for Salafi Studies in India, along with opening more such centres in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Muslim World League is a controversial Saudi government funded charity, which has earlier been linked with international terror financing.