Saudi Arabia’s engagement in India goes beyond strengthening its reach of India’s Muslims. It aims to reduce the Iran factor in the Indian economy.
Mr. Erdogan’s efforts for the hearts and minds of India’s Muslims do not go unchallenged. He is competing with Saudi Arabia.
Funding Muslim institutions in India
The Saudis are funding multiple Salafi organizations in India, including charities, educational institutions and political organizations.
The India Foundation, with its close ties to Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), issued an analysis last year in which it highlighted the significance of two Saudi-funded universities’ adoption of a palm tree in their logos.
It viewed that as evidence of the kingdom’s proselytization efforts to “la[y] the ideological foundation for Arabization of Muslims in India. Over time, this has dealt a suicidal blow to the local character of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.”
The broader Saudi effort is furthered by the fact that some three million Indians work in the kingdom. Many of them hail from Kerala in southwestern India.
As scholar Hameed Chendamangalloor points out:
The Muslim community in Kerala is undergoing the process of Arabification… It is happening like the Westernization. Those Indians who had lived in England once used to emulate the English way of life back home. Similarly, Muslims in Kerala are trying to bring home the Arabian culture and way of life.
Going up against the Iran factor in India
If Mr. Erdogan’s interest in India and its Muslims is primarily about his leadership ambitions in the Islamic world, for Saudi Arabia it’s not just about being top dog in a religious context.
For Saudi Arabia, perhaps the key reason for its engagement with Indian Muslims is about countering Iran’s influence in India.
After all, seeking to influence Indian Muslims creates one more pressure point for the kingdom in its opposition to Indian funding of Iran’s Arabian Sea port of Chabahar.
Saudi Arabia fears the port will help Iran counter harsh U.S. sanctions imposed after Donald Trump’s withdrawal from a 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program.
India as a potent Iranian ally
The Saudis are concerned that the port will enable Iran to gain a greater market share in India for its oil exports at the expense of Saudi Arabia and increase its government revenues, as well as allowing Iran to project power in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
In this context, Saudi Arabia sees Indian Shiites, who are believed to account for anywhere between 10% and 30% of the country’s 180 million Muslims, as an Iranian fifth wheel.
Indian media quoted a report by India’s Intelligence Bureau as saying that ultra-conservative Saudi Islamic scholars were frequently visiting Indian Sunni Muslim communities.
The Bureau reportedly put the number of visitors in the years between 2011 and 2013 at 25,000. It said they had distributed tens of millions of dollars – a scale unmatched by Turkish funding.
The Turkish-Saudi competition for Indian Muslim hearts and minds is grit on the mill of Hindu nationalists, which is what makes it potentially so inflammatory politically.