By Hussain Shazzad
The official journey of Bangladesh and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) relations started in 1975 when the KSA recognized newly born Bangladesh as a sovereign country.
Since then, these two countries have been maintaining cordial and closer friendship prioritizing mutual understanding, a deep sense of fraternity, and cooperation in multilateral sectors. State-level official visits from both sides have contributed to the further development of their bilateral bonding. The current foreign minister of the KSA, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, is expected to visit Bangladesh on March 16, 2022. Marking this historical visit, Bangladesh expects that the bilateral relations could be taken to a new height by ensuring more economic cooperation.
Bangladesh, being a Muslim-majority country, attaches a special priority to its relations with Saudi Arabia as the birthplace of Islam. Both countries have common social norms and cultural values derived from their religious practices. Also, they share similar views on many regional and global issues especially those that are directly related to the Muslim world. Their common interest led them to cooperate in different regional and international platforms such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), UN, etc. Their current ties have further been reinforced by ever-deepening cooperation in the fields of investment, trade, investment, manpower, defense, education, culture, etc. As Bangladesh perceives KSA as one of its trusted friends, it is the need of the hour to analyze the expectations of the mass Bangladeshis from the KSA foreign minister’s visit to Bangladesh.
The tremendous economic growth of Bangladesh in the last 50 years has made the country a financial and industrial hub of South Asia. According to the World Bank, Bangladesh is one of the fastest-growing economies of the world supported by its consistent growth in ready-made garment (RMG) exports, demographic dividend, and stable macroeconomic conditions. Because of the economic success, the KSA now perceives Bangladesh, going beyond the religious dimension, as one of the lucrative investment designations. The KSA is now one of the most reliable bilateral development partners of Bangladesh, the relations dynamics of which have evolved from one-layered to multi-dimensional cooperation over time.
Bangladesh Economic Zones Authority (BEZA) is planning to allocate some 300 acres of land to Saudi investors in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Shilpa Nagar in Chattogram. It is expected that both countries will sign billion-dollar worth investment proposals, from the part of Saudi Arabia, including some energy sector-related projects. Apart from energy sectors, Saudi investors can invest in Bangladesh’s 100 special economic zones, large-infrastructure undertakings, textiles, IT, agro-based industries etc.
The KSA is the largest and most valued destination for Bangladeshi expatriates. From 1976 to 2021, Bangladesh exported a total of 45.81 lakh migrant workers to the Kingdom which is almost 34 percent of the country’s total manpower export. Even amid the pandemic gloom in 2020 when most of the labor markets remained shut down, the Kingdom employed 1.61 lakh Bangladeshi workers. Last year, Bangladesh exported 6.17 lakh migrants abroad of which 4.57 lakh, almost 76 percent of total overseas employment, were sent to the KSA. In the last five years, Saudi Arabia has become the top destination for Bangladeshi migrant workforces. The Gulf country is implementing several megaprojects under its “Vision-2030” which may turn the country a better job destination for Bangladeshis if proper steps are being taken targeting the upcoming visit.
Bangladesh is on the highway to be graduated from the Least Developed Country (LDC) group by 2026. After graduation, Bangladesh will not be eligible for many preferential treatments that are exclusively available for the LDCs in global trade. Limited access to these preferential facilities will have an adverse impact on the balance of payment of Bangladesh, especially with the unavoidable negative impact on its total export earnings. To counter these challenges, Bangladesh may negotiate with KSA for ensuring duty-free access to the Saudi market even after the LDC graduation.
Since the genocide orchestrated by Myanmar military on Rohigya community in 2017, Bangladesh has been hosting 1.2 million Rohingya refugees. Besides, Bangladesh had been experiencing a negative trend in the international humanitarian assistance funds for supporting these refugees. Being the leader of the Muslim world, Bangladesh may expect that Saudi Arabia will take initiative to end the plight of Rohingyas, the deprived Muslim minorities, by ensuring a safe and dignified return to their homeland. Also, Bangladesh may talk with the KSA Foreign Minister for more financial support to ensure life-saving assistance is required to support the Rohingya refugees.
Marking the visit of the KSA’s foreign minister, Bangladesh should prepare itself to convey the message that it can cooperate with KSA in implementing its “Vision-2030” by cooperating in the field of manpower, trade, investment, agriculture, and education.
Also, Bangladesh requires Saudi’s extensive engagement and economic cooperation to materialize the country’s “Vision-2041”. Apart from state-level visits, economic and investment-related delegations and cultural and defense cooperation can play a crucial role in taking the ties to a new level. “Greater economic engagement from both sides can fundamentally change the overall relationship dynamics between these two countries in future” which should get preference in the upcoming visit.
Hussain Shazzad is a strategic affairs and foreign policy analyst with an M.B.A. from the University of Dhaka.