by Pathik Hasan
Bangladesh-Saudi Arabia relations officially began in 1976 when Saudi Arabia recognized Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country, which gained independence in 1971. At present, the relations between the two countries are fraternal, strong, and evolving. Although the Saudi government supported Pakistan during the Great War of Liberation in 1971, that attitude changed over time and Saudi Arabia became a close friend of independent Bangladesh by standing by the side of the people in various crises. In independent Bangladesh, diplomatic relations were first established between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia centered on the Hajj. In that communication, Saudi Arabia’s response to Bangladesh’s call also paved the way for new relations. Saudi Arabia provided financial assistance for the development of Bangladesh at different times. Saudi Arabia provides financial assistance and loans for the development of Bangladesh Railways, expansion of industrial, educational, scientific and technical knowledge, and development of communication systems. Aside from these, it plays an effective role in agriculture, flood control, housing construction, improving the living standards of the workers.
The government and people of Saudi Arabia have stood by Bangladesh in times of crisis. They have extended unconditional help during disasters. During his visit to Jeddah in 1974, Tajuddin Ahmed, then finance minister of the Bangabandhu government, requested the Saudi government to help the flood victims in Bangladesh by announcing 10 million US dollars in aid.
On 17 April 1976, the export of manpower to Saudi Arabia officially started with the sending of 216 workers from Bangladesh. Along with these workers, 64 tons of clay and 50 kg of neem seeds were also sent. With the sending of these workers, the journey of Saudi Arabia’s relations with Bangladesh officially began.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) of the Government of Bangladesh, 26 lakh 59 thousand 996 (1 lakh=100,000) Bangladeshi workers went to Saudi Arabia in 40 years from 197 to August 10, 2016. However, according to researchers and to various statistics, more than 2.5 million Bangladeshi workers are currently working in various sectors in Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, after 8 years, Saudi Arabia imported manpower to Bangladesh when it lifted the ban.(All workers except domestic workers were banned then) According to researchers, according to various statistics, a total of 1.6 million Bangladeshi workers – 13 percent of Saudi Arabia’s total workforce are currently working in various sectors in Saudi Arabia. Bangladeshis are working with dignity in various high positions including teaching in different universities of Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, more than 60,000 female domestic workers have arrived in Saudi Arabia. As such, Saudi Arabia is the largest labor market of Bangladesh. They are contributing to Saudi Arabia’s development.
Due to the diplomatic skills and wisdom of the present Sheikh Hasina government, the ban has been lifted. This has paved the way for the re-establishment of good relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia in the field of manpower exports.
As a result, good relations have been re-established between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia in the field of manpower export, which we hope will further enrich the country’s economy.
About 70,000 Bangladeshis have left for Saudi Arabia on visit visas and more than a million are in the process of leaving. Saudi Arabia’s public and private contribution to the socio-economic development of Bangladesh is not less than any other donor country, but in some cases, Saudi Arabia’s contribution is much higher. It is undeniable that Saudi Arabia provided financial assistance for the reconstruction of post-independence and post-disaster Bangladesh, including floods.
Although the relationship with Saudi Arabia is fundamentally religious, the 50 years since independence have added some more powerful elements to the relationship between the two countries. Notable among these is the export of manpower or the entry of Bangladeshis into the Saudi labor market and making a significant contribution.
Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the infrastructural and educational development of Bangladesh is not known to most of the people of the country. Former Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, for example, secretly donated 130 million from private funds through the Islamic Development Bank to develop and rehabilitate infrastructure in the Sidr-hit coastal areas of Bangladesh.
And no one knew about this gift before his death. He requested IDB President Ahmad Muhammad Ali not to disclose his name as a donor before his death. Under that condition, King Abdullah released it after his death in January 2015, and the whole world can know how big a donor he was.
With the money given by King Abdullah, 173 school cum cyclone shelters were being constructed in the coastal areas of Bangladesh with 110 million dollars. Some of the completed shelters were inaugurated in January 2016 by Prince Turki bin Abdullah, chief executive of the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud International Foundation for Humanitarian Activities (KAIFHA) and son of King Abdullah. The remaining 20 million has been waqfed, which was being used for the socio-economic development of the poor people in Bangladesh. Saudi Arabia’s contribution to the development of Bangladesh is no longer unknown.
Numerous Bangladeshis are studying Honors, Masters, Ph.D. courses with full scholarships in different universities of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia also sends lots of gifts of Quran, Islamic books, dates, sacrificial animals and other items to Bangladesh every year.
Every year 1 lakh people from Bangladesh go to Saudi Arabia for Hajj. In addition, Saudi Arabia offers the opportunity to perform Hajj to a certain number of prominent people of Bangladesh as special guests of the King of Saudi Arabia.
The last meeting between the two countries was held in February 2020 at the 13th meeting of the Saudi Arabian-Bangladesh Economic Council. Important discussions were held on various issues including agriculture, industry, education, remittances, import and export trade. Twenty-nine representatives of 21 Saudi companies arrived in Bangladesh for the meeting.
Within a few years of Bangladesh’s independence, Saudi Arabia recognized Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign land. Bangladesh’s distance from Saudi Arabia began to narrow with the meeting of the then Prime Minister of Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with the then King of Saudi Arabia Faisal bin Abdul Aziz at the Second OIC Summit held in Pakistan in 1974 and Bangladesh becoming a member of the OIC. The following year, on 16 August 1975, after the brutal martyrdom of the Father of the Nation, Saudi Arabia recognized Bangladesh. Since then, Bangladesh has officially maintained diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
On the initiative of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and under the leadership of Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the first Islamic military alliance in history was formed on 15 December 2015 comprising 34 Muslim countries including Bangladesh. Now the number of member states is 41.
Military relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have been strengthened. A joint military exercise between the two countries was held already in March 2018, hosted by Saudi Arabia. The name of this exercise is ‘Gulf Shield-1’. Sixteen members of the Bangladesh Army took part in the month-long military exercise. This was the first joint military exercise of the Bangladesh Army with Saudi Arabia. Apart from Bangladesh and host Saudi Arabia, 23 other countries have taken part in it. “Joint Gulf Shield 1”, the exercises involved tens of thousands of personnel from the land, sea and air forces of 24 countries, including Saudi Arabia, the U.S., the U.K., Pakistan, Sudan, Egypt and Malaysia.
Its purpose was to increase military cooperation. The Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina arrived in Saudi Arabia on April 15, 2018, to deliver and attend the closing ceremony. He was invited by King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Through this exercise, a new horizon of military relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia can be opened. Of course, this is a very strong decision from the side of Bangladesh.
In the early 1990s, the Bangladesh Army participated in the Gulf War for the first time. The Bangladesh Army has ample opportunities to work with Saudi Arabia.
Counterterrorism, economic diplomacy, tourism, Covid-19 vaccine diplomacy may be the sectors of mutual cooperation between KSA-Bangladesh relations. KSA always supports Bangladesh in favor of Rohingya repatriation to Myanmar, refugees who were forcibly displaced by the Myanmar government in 2017. Bangladesh has sheltered them temporarily. But they have to be repatriated in Myanmar in the long run.
Hopefully, in the changed world situation and in the international political context, Saudi Arabia-Bangladesh’s good relations will play a strong role in the Muslim world. Wherever Muslims in the world, including Syria, Iraq, Palestine and Myanmar, are being persecuted and oppressed, they will play an effective role in solving their problems. Every Muslim around the world has high hopes for Saudi Arabia. We hope that in the coming years, Saudi Arabia will do its best to fulfill its responsibilities through good relations with all Muslim countries, including Bangladesh. given that the bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia has recently become more cordial.
About the writer:
MD Pathik Hasan is a Dhaka-based analyst and columnist, particularly on current international issues.