Coming from a liberal, democratic and secular country, it is easy to find reasons for disquiet, even alarm, in one's first encounter with the closed world of Saudi Arabia. It seems all too easy to see stereotypes all around and little else—stereotypes spawned by Hindi films and media reports of Arab sheikhs coming to India to prey upon underage girls, employing pre-adolescent boys to jockey their camels, and keeping hundreds of poor Indian workers in subhuman conditions for paltry petrodollars.
It's easy to condemn a society and culture where change has been slow and uneven. It's easy to point a finger at a people who practise such stringent seclusion upon their women that the fine line between discrimination and seclusion gets blurred. It's easy, particularly as the only woman in an official delegation, to feel victimised. The black, all-enveloping abaya and hijab—that one must wear absolutely everywhere—are indeed a nuisance for one not accustomed to the numbing anonymity they bestow. Moreover, it's certainly not much fun being an invited guest and yet face extreme seclusion when it comes to interacting with male counterparts. Eating a ten-course meal in solitary splendour is, also, less than appetising! What's difficult, however, is to look beyond the stereotypes and strictures, and discern what lies beneath the seeming prosperity and complacency.
A seminar organised by the Saudi-Indian Business Network in collaboration with the Indian Consul General in Jeddah proved to be an early eye-opener. It opened a small window into the Arab mind and revealed a people not quite as sanguine as one had imagined. The speakers constituted the creme de la creme of Saudi elite—the CEO of Yanbou Cement Company, the editor of Arab News, the deputy minister for information and culture and the chief of South Asian Moassasa (the apex body that looks after the Haj pilgrims). While speaker after speaker spoke of the disenchantment with the West, they also lamented the distance that had crept into Indo-Arab ties over the past five decades. Recognising the ties with us that predate Islam, they rued the gulf that had been allowed to emerge—in no small measure owing to Saudi apathy towards India—that had dimmed the lure of the East. To a man, they lauded our progress, admitted to looking at us as not just as a partner for trade and investment but a valuable ally against the West, and admired our long-term investment in the "temples of modern India".
In a bid to stem the flow of Arab students to the West from where they return 'contaminated', the Saudis today are keen to build and manage institutions of higher learning in their own kingdom. In this they recognise not just India's expertise but seek active cooperation from Indian institutions to set up centres for distance learning. For us at Jamia, this interest in the possibilities of interaction in the realm of higher education was most encouraging.
Newspaper and television reports and talks with the expats bolster the impression of a people sensitive to the criticisms levelled against them. Post-9/11, Saudis seem willing to look inwards, examine their own society, and put in place checks and balances to curb some of the terrible advantages of wealth. By the same measure, they don't want to be judged by the standards of others—Western or Indian. For far too long, the non-Arab has imposed his own standards and ways of 'seeing' the Arab, the House of Saud in particular, through a prism of mistrust and misunderstanding. This one-sided view is the cause for much resentment. Wary of being swept away by the tide of modernisation, Saudis are anxious to hold on to their distinct tribal identities. So, while on the one hand, as a visitor, one chafes at the restrictions of a cloistered and sequestered society, one is also acutely aware of the Saudis' sense of peril.
In the end, it was rewarding to realise how stereotypes cut both ways. Just as we have our stereotypes, the Saudis too have their stereotypes of the typical Indian: culled from TV channels and Hindi films and reinforced by myths of 'guest workers' from India who see the sheikh as a milking cow and the Saudi kingdom as a land to make a quick buck and return home to build multi-storeyed houses in the backwaters of Kerala or the hinterland of Bihar. While some Saudis are offended by the single-minded—almost myopic—ambition of the Indian worker to accumulate as much money as he can in the shortest possible time, a great many others look upon India far more favourably than ever before.
It is important to see this change—which didn't happen on its own or overnight—as a portent of things to come. It can have far-reaching consequences, provided we shed some of our blinkers and rise to the occasion. It can, Inshallah, be a catalyst for other changes in the rest of the Islamic world which takes its cue from Saudi Arabia.
(The author is media coordinator, Jamia Millia Islamia.)
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