What’s The Significance Of Saudi Arabia-Bangladesh Military Diplomacy? – OpEd


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, 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 Prime Minister of the KSA, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, is expected to visit Bangladesh on this year. 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 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 significance of the Bangladesh army chiefs KSA visit. Chief of Army Staff General S M Shafiuddin Ahmed travelled to Saudi Arabia on an official visit on Tuesday at the invitation of Commander of the Royal Saudi Land Forces Lt Gen Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Mutair.

During the visit, he will pay courtesy calls on the Royal Saudi Land Forces Commander, the Chief of General Staff of the Royal Saudi Armed Forces and senior military and civilian officials. During the meeting, he will discuss various issues of training and bilateral cooperation between the armies of the two countries. The Chief of Army Staff will visit the Armed Forces Staff College of Saudi Arabia and will perform the holy Umrah. General Shafiuddin will return to the country on May 27, 2023. 

On the other hand, Saudi wants to make large-scale investments in Bangladesh, Kingdom’s ministers tell PM Hasina. Saudi Arabian Minister of Investment Khalid A. Al-Faliah and Minister of Economy and Planning Faisal Alibrahim came up with the offer when they jointly called on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina at her place of residence in Doha on May 23, 2023. The present situation and future of Bangladesh is very good and this is why they have taken the decision to strengthen its relation with Bangladesh, they say 

Enhancing Military relations

On the initiative of King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and under the leadership of Saudi Prime Minister and 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 on 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 is the first joint military exercise of 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 is 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.

Counter terrorism, 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 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 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. The bilateral relationship between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia has recently become more cordial.

Specific Areas for cooperation

1. In conformity with the Bangladesh government’s “zero tolerance” policy against terrorism and violent extremism, Bangladesh has joined the Saudi-led military alliance (IMCTC), a pan-Islamic unified front of 41 countries. 

2. At different times, Bangladesh strongly condemned the Houthi militias’ drone attacks targeting parts of Saudi Arabia. 

3. Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia signed an MoU to further bolster military cooperation in 2019. 

4. Saudi Arabia has signed a security deal with Bangladesh to tackle drugs and human trafficking on November 12, 2022. 

5. The security deal covered training, efforts to curb drug and human trafficking, as well as cybercrime and other multinational crimes. 

6. The deal will also boost exchange training and visits between the country’s two security forces.

Bangladesh and KSA can strengthen cooperation in Cyber Security and help acquire advanced intelligence technologies.  Bangladesh and KSA can continue this collaboration regarding stability and security in the future.

Bangladesh’s support for the KSA relations with Iran and peaceful Middle East

Bangladesh is a peace-loving country and welcomes the move by Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties. The issue of re-establishing relations of the KSA with Syria came to the fore shortly after the announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran in March of this year. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits Moscow. At that time, Russia mediated the restoration of Saudi-Syrian relations.

On April 12, a meeting was held at the level of foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Syria. In the meeting, Saudi Arabia agreed to help Syria return under the Arab umbrella. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran serve as major players in the Middle East, diverging in their regional outlooks as they compete for regional dominance. Despite this, their bilateral relations are strengthening, which has important implications for the growth of the economy of Bangladesh.  Bangladesh is a significant economic and political partner of both nations, and a notable friend of China. It received Iran-Saudi relationship positively and welcomes the decision to resume the diplomatic ties. Normalisation of the relationship between Iran and Saudi might exhibit significant impacts on Bangladesh’s foreign policy; especially in the domains of culture of peace, multilateralism, energy, trade and investment

Iran and Saudi Arabia are significant oil and gas producers, and improved relations within the two countries might culminate further cooperation in Bangladesh’s energy industry. By 2041, it is projected that energy consumption in Bangladesh will surpass 50,000 MW. Improved relations between the two nations will likely result in a more consistent energy supply to Bangladesh, and possibly cut energy costs.

By lowering hostilities and increasing cooperation, restoring diplomatic ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia may help keep the region relaxed. Considering this, peaceful relationships betweenthe nationscanfoster Bangladesh to be a more secure, safe, and plentiful country, which may result in a ”Golden Bangladesh”

Enhancing energy cooperation

With the energy crisis that is currently affecting not just Bangladesh, but the entire world, it has been imperative for us to be able to source energy to meet our demands.

To that end, it is good to learn that Saudi Arabia has assured its assistance in the commercial supply of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) to Bangladesh on an emergency basis.

In addition, two memorandums of understanding (MoUs) have also been signed between the two countries on mutual cooperation in recruitment, training of naval professionals, and increasing trade.

Particularly, discussions regarding the construction of a 1,000MW solar power and 730MW gas power plant in Bangladesh by Saudi ACWA Power is very encouraging, telling us that the authorities concerned are indeed pro-active when it comes to finding long-term solutions for Bangladesh’s growing energy needs.

Saudi Arabia has also long been a favoured destination for our migrant workers, and the remittance sent year on year has been one of the foundations upon which the Bangladesh economy has grown to be what it is today. 

It is therefore important for Bangladesh to continue strengthening the relationship it has with Saudi Arabia, and indeed with other Gulf nations as well. Nevertheless, this strengthened relationship must also include better working conditions for our migrant workers, together with exploring more avenues for cooperation for the benefit of all parties.

Bangladesh’s historic foreign policy principle, as coined by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, of “friendship to all and malice towards none” is more relevant today than ever before, as Bangladesh navigates an increasingly volatile global climate while harbouring extremely ambitious goals.  Bangladesh must continue fostering stronger relationships with other economies so that it does not fall short of its ambitions. 

Other sides of the cooperation

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 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 the 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 the 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 to 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 a number of 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 the 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 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. Bangladesh may expect that Saudi Arabia will take initiative to end the plight of Rohingyas, the deprived Muslim minorities, by ensuring 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 required to support the Rohingya refugees.

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.

Jubeda Chowdhury

Jubeda Chowdhury is a freelance writer with a Master's Degree in International Relations from the University of Dhaka.

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