By Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh is to deploy hundreds of soldiers to Saudi Arabia for demining operations along the kingdom’s border with war-torn Yemen under a new bilateral defense deal between Dhaka and Riyadh, the Bangladeshi foreign minister said.
Senior military officers from both countries signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in Riyadh on Thursday, sealing the first ever agreement on defense cooperation between the two nations, Bangladeshi officials confirmed. Bangladesh’s government, however, did not release a copy of the MoU.
It calls for sending 1,800 troops to Saudi Arabia in a non-combat role, Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen told BenarNews on the eve of the MoU’s signing.
“According to the deal, the members of the Bangladesh armed forces will clear the landmines planted on the Saudi border with Yemen,” he said. “Our forces will work to protect the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, if attacked. Other than this, they will not take part in any combat activities.”
The deal aims to enhance military cooperation and intelligence sharing between the two countries, among other objectives, Bangladeshi foreign ministry officials said.
Lt. Gen. Mahfuzur Rahman, the principal staff officer at the Armed Forces Division in the Bangladesh prime minister’s office, signed the MoU in the Saudi capital with Lt. Gen. Mutlaq S. Al Ozaime, deputy of general staff of the Saudi Armed Forces, according to officials.
“Today the defense MoU has been signed. The signing of the MoU will bolster bilateral relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia,” Nazrul Islam, the deputy chief of Bangladesh’s mission in Riyadh, told BenarNews. “The MoU will remain valid for five years. Subjected to approval of both sides, the agreement can be extended.”
The Bangladeshi embassy there also issued a statement.
“Based on the existing friendly relations and in line with the foreign policy, this MoU was signed with the hope that it will enhance international peace and stability.”
Terms of the MoU call for Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia to cooperate on activities including military training, exercises and education, exchanging military information and intelligence, and working with each other to ensure maritime security, Bangladeshi officials said. Bangladesh has previously sent troops to Saudi Arabia, but only for training missions.
Former Foreign Secretary Mustafa Kamal, a military officer turned diplomat, told BenarNews the Bangladesh Army earned its global reputation in clearing landmines planted in Kuwait by Iraqi forces during the first Gulf War in 1991.
“The Bangladesh Army successfully demined all of Kuwait. The reputation of our army in clearing landmines is known to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the world. Possibly, that reputation encouraged Saudi Arabia to sign the MoU,” he said.
“The assignment of demining Saudi Arabia is an opportunity for Bangladesh Army to demonstrate its standard of professionalism and contribute to keeping civilians safe,” he said.
He warned that Bangladesh troops should not get involved in Saudi Arabia’s proxy war in Yemen, where Riyadh is supporting the government in fighting Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran, Saudi’s arch rival in the Middle East.
“This is because Yemenis are also Muslims,” he said.
In late 2018, the United Nations described the Yemeni Civil War – which has dragged on now for nearly four years and where a famine threatens the civilian population – as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The country was facing the threat of the worst famine in a century, the U.N. declared in November.
The signing of the MoU came a day after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution calling for an end to military support for the Saudi-led coalition operating in Yemen. The Senate previously passed similar legislation that went against the Trump administration’s support for the Saudi government.
Bangladesh had joined the Saudi coalition to bring down Islamic State militants based in Iraq and Syria, as the extremist group sought to expand its brutal campaign in the Middle East and beyond, officials said.
On Thursday, Bangladeshi lawmakers representing partners in a ruling alliance headed by the Awami League party announced their opposition to the MoU with Saudi Arabia.
Rashed Khan Menon, a former minister and chief of the Workers’ Party, started an unscheduled discussion on the parliamentary floor about the memorandum.
“We have to examine whether this agreement violates Article 25 of our constitution,” he said, adding the constitution stipulated that Bangladesh would not get involved in disputes between countries. Saudi Arabia had been carrying out attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, he noted.
Article 25 states that Bangladesh will base “its international relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law and principles enunciated in the United Nations Charter.”
“The U.N. Secretary-General said Yemen was the worst humanitarian disaster on Earth. Our army will go there to clear landmines. Why would they sacrifice their lives in the pretext of demining,” Menon said.
“When our army personnel are deployed at the frontier, naturally there will be disputes (with Yemen),” he said.
Jatiya Party MP Fakhrul Imam agreed with Menon, saying the government had bypassed parliament to sign the MoU.
“The parliament has been in session. But I watched on television that a defense deal is being signed. …What was the problem in discussing it in the House,” he said.