A minority crisis has hit the Ministry of External Affairs regarding the next Indian Ambassador to Riyadh. It’s been an unstated policy that all Indian envoys to the ultra conservative kingdom would be Muslims, but this time it seems to be rebounding. A shortage of eligible candidates may force MEA to give incumbent Hamid Ali Rao a year’s extension. The 1981 batch IFS officer is supposed to retire in April. The search for his successor had zeroed in on MEA spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin of the 1985 batch. However, sources say he has turned down the offer, especially since he has completed two stints of four years each in Saudi Arabia—in Riyadh from 1988 to 1992 and Jeddah from 2000 to 2004.
Akbaruddin was the only officer senior enough to be sent as ambassador. Other experienced serving Muslim officers—Ausaf Sayeed (1989), consul general in Chicago, Jawed Ashraf (1991) joint secretary in the PMO and Nagma Malik (1992) the ambassador to Tunisia—are considered too junior. Rao had got much kudos for his handling of the massive Indian fallout from the nitaqat programme.
The reason why Muslims officers or political appointees are dispatched as ambassadors to the kingdom started at the time when the main mutual concern between India and Saudi Arabia was the Haj pilgrimage. The relationship has by now diversified, but the annual pilgrimage occupies a major portion of the embassy’s concerns, with 150,000 Indian pilgrims going to Haj every year. The strict Wahabi theology practiced in Saudi Arabia places many restrictions on non-Muslims, including a ban on their entrance to the two holy places, Mecca and Medina. “Should a crisis arise, how will the mission manage without an ambassador?” asked a senior MEA official. On the policy of sending only Muslims as ambassadors to Riyadh, he pointed out that India, with its second largest Muslim population in the world, is unique. “If you see the countries with more than 100 million Muslims, they are all Muslim countries. The quota for Haj pilgrims from various countries travelling to Saudi depends on their population.”
India’s diplomatic presence in Saudi Arabia began in 1948 with a consulate in Jeddah, which became an embassy in 1957. The embassy moved to the capital Riyadh in October 1985.
Until 1976, the Indian mission in Saudi Arabia comprised only Muslim officials, until Ranjit Gupta arrived as the first non-Muslim officer. He was the second-in-charge at the embassy. Speaking to The Sunday Standard, Gupta remembered that he faced many social constraints. “I remember Saudis would not even accept my invitations,” he said. Perhaps to balance the equation after Gupta left, most of his successors, too, have been non-Muslims. “In my time, the relationship between the two countries was rather limited. That it has grown so much is something we can be really proud of,” said Gupta, who retired 12 years ago. Saudi Arabia is a major source of oil imports and remittances from 2.5 million Indian workers. Historically, the IFS faced shortage of suitably senior officials for the Saudi envoy’s post, and the government had to resort to sending either retired IFS officers or political appointees. Saudi Arabia, perhaps is the only country where four Indian ambassadors have served two terms.