Let us first put things into perspective. The native population of Saudi Arabia is around 20 million. The population of Bombay is 20 million. The population of the biggest State of India Uttar Pradesh is 200 million, which is ten times the native population of Saudi Arabia.
It is estimated that there are 1.6 BILLION Muslims scattered all over the world. The total population of Saudi Arabia is merely 1.25% of the global Muslim population.
Of course Saudi Arabia is home to two of the three holiest sites in Islam. The ritual of Haj existed even before the time of Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are not exactly going to Saudi Arabia for Haj, they are going to Mecca and Medina which at this point of time happen to be a part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Is Saudi Arabia the Vatican of Islam? Much of the perception in the West and of course among Hindu liberals is based on their understanding of Christianity. They try to find parallels between religions. If Catholics have the Vatican then Muslims have Saudi Arabia. The heart of Islam. However this is not true. The primary learning hub for Muslims have kept shifting through the history of Islam. At one point it was Baghdad, at another time it was Cairo and yet at another time it was Persia. Even the subcontinent produced some of the most influential scholars and schools of Islam.
Islam has been a very successful ideology which is followed by every fourth person in the world across races, tribes and nations. Today there isn’t any single center for learning. There are many centers each competing for the mind of Muslims.
Saudi Arabia is not a flag bearer of Islam. No Muslim country is. Saudi Arabia is a nation state with its own citizenship laws. A Muslim wont automatically become a citizen of Saudi Arabia. Indian PM Narendra Modi described India as the natural home for Hindus, Israel grants citizenship to Jews from all over the world. Saudi association with the global Muslim community is limited to the ritual of Haj. Apart from that Saudi Arabia has its regional associations, regional power struggles and regional aspirations.
Saudi Arabia does not take a confrontational attitude even with nation states that are extremely hostile towards their Muslim population. Narendra Modi, who is accused of being complicit in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 received highest civilian award from the Saudi Government. Saudi Arabia puts its national interest ahead of everything else. Saudis do what any nation state would do to further its national interests.
The West had keen interest in Saudi Arabia because the West needed oil. Even today the West in general and US in particular closely allies with Saudi Arabia to exert influence in the region. Many liberals in the West accuse Saudi Arabia of exporting Islamic extremism but ignore the fact it is their own Governments that are arming Saudi Arabia. Either the West is complicit with Saudis in exporting Islamic extremism or the liberals are simply demonizing Saudi Arabia because of the age old stereotypes that they have constructed about the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is a conservative country. For example no other Muslim country has restrictions on female drivers. Saudi Arabia is also a very fast urbanizing society. In the past two decades the country has made good progress in empowering women. Saudi women have better access to healthcare, literacy rate is 100%, there is record rise in female workforce participation, new laws against domestic violence have been introduced and there has been a weakening of guardianship laws. Saudi women even have 20% seats reserved in their national parliament.
Saudi Arabia is the favorite punching bag for Islamophobes and Liberals alike. Of course Saudi Arabia, like any other country in the world, has many flaws. Of course they can do better on empowering their women, of course they can do better on empowering their citizens via democracy, of course they can stop public hanging of criminals. Capital punishment is not unique to Saudi Arabia. China, India and US all have the provision for capital punishment. In fact India is notorious for killing thousands of people every year inside its jails without a trial. China can do more to promote democracy. US can abolish death penalty. There is nothing uniquely bad about Saudi Arabia, a comparatively tiny population, to be singled out for constant criticism.
This constant criticism of Saudi Arabia has less to do with human rights or gender parity concerns and more to do with anti Muslim bigotry. You will often hear from people that Islam does not allow women to drive. The fact is that only Saudi Arabia does not allow women to drive. 98% of Muslim women around the world have no restrictions on driving. When Saudis eventually allow their women to drive, and that time is not too far, the saddest people on the planet would be the anti Muslim bigots. They don’t really care about any Muslim, women and children included. Most would take quiet pleasure in seeing Muslim women and children suffer.
The other group of people who excessively criticize Saudi Arabia are those who have sectarian loyalties. And there is no dearth of Muslims who would selectively target Iran on the basis of their own sectarian loyalties. Indian Muslims should be careful. Liberals are not criticizing Saudi Arabia, their target is the Indian Muslim.
Saudi Arabia is just a convenient straw-man argument. They want to bully you. Do not get bullied. Bully them back with questions regarding their own country, their own religion. India fares far worse than Saudi Arabia on almost every gender and social indicator. Check UN’s gender index. Check UN’s human development index.
If they can bully you for what happens in a country thousands of miles away then surely you can hold them to account for what happens in India. If they can hold Islam and all Muslims accountable for a country where 1.25% of all Muslims live then surely you can hold Hinduism and all Hindus accountable for what happens in India where 95% of all Hindus live.
As Kenneth J. Long observed in his Book ‘Contemporary Anti Muslim Politics, Aggressions and Exclusions’:
“It is fascinating that Westerners generally fail to consider comparisons of Muslim postcolonial societies to comparable non-Muslim ones. Hindu-dominated India for example generally fares far worse than its Muslim counterparts when it comes to issues of gender equality. India’s rape rate is far worse, female foeticide is a much bigger problem, female literacy is at least as prevalent, and female membership in governance is equally underrepresented; all without much victimization by foreign intervention in the last handful of decades.” ~ Kenneth J. Long
Lastly, as a Muslim it is OK to have concerns related to Saudi Arabia, you may even have serious differences with what they believe in. It is OK to discuss these issues within the privacy of your trusted circles. Do not throw fellow Muslims to the vultures because after they are done with so called “wahabis” they are coming for you.