Young men from Bangladesh travel to the Middle East in search of work. Over time, they transfer money to their family back home, and our nation benefits from these labor-intensive foreign exchange transactions. Over 10 million Bangladeshis, mostly in the Middle East, reside and work abroad. After the clothing industry, they constitute the country’s second-largest source of remittances from abroad. According to figures from the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training, they sent more than $22 billion home last year alone. Before the RMG (Ready Made Garments) boom, Bangladesh had to solely rely on remittances sent by migrant workers, and it still remains one of the biggest source of foreign currency earning, with scopes of expansion. Despite its lucrative nature, there are critical reports highlighting the dismal state of migrant Bangladeshi workers in the Middle East, whose tragic misfortunes are often disregarded.
Since Saudi Arabia is the home to the highest number of Bangladeshi migrant workers and serves as the pedestal for two of Islam’s holiest sites, it is an important part of Bangladesh’s outlook on the Middle East. But the relationships with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is showing new signs of adaptation due to the shifting geopolitical landscape.
Both Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have similar perspectives on a wide range of regional and global issues, especially those that concern the Islamic community. The collaboration between the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and other international and regional forums has been strengthened by these common priorities, viewpoints, and fraternal relationships. Growing bilateral links in the areas of trade, investment, defense, culture, education, and manpower have strengthened already-existing ties.
Since Bangladesh is heavily reliant on remittances sent by migrant workers living in the Middle East, it was reluctant to cultivate Iranian offer in the energy sector, fearing reprisals from leading Gulf countries, despite the country’s need for improvement in the energy sector in keeping up with its growing economy. The sole refinery of Bangladesh in fact, was built in the Pakistan period with Iranian assistance.
Saudi Arabia has begun to take a bigger role in Middle Eastern matters, despite significant criticism, with Yemen at the top of the list. Saudi Arabia has been displaying apparent signs of reversing its pro-Western stance. Jamat E Islami, a pro-Brotherhood Islamist political organization and a chief ally of BNP in Bangladesh, has come under harsh repression when the Arab spring tipped the Middle East against Saudi Arabia. But as soon as Russia entered Syria and Mohammad Bin Salman replaced his father, King Salman, as the country’s supremo, relations between Saudi Arabia and a number of their vital allies improved.
The two extremist schools of Islam were constantly competing with one another to project themselves as the dominant force of their brethren in Islam around the world. The Wahhabi sect, which promotes intolerance and sectarian enmity and is well recognized for its animosity for Shia Iran, offers a more extreme interpretation of Islam. Although this again partly relies on which interpretation may possibly triumph at this time in history, the Salafi perspective on Islam offers a more accommodating safe haven for principles that are incompatible with Wahhabi belief, making it easier for the Iranian state to cooperate with.
The two schools of thought are mainly prevalent in nations with a Sunni majority. It is believed that the Salafi ideology is primarily propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whilst Wahhabism is pursued by Saudi Arabia through funding from non-governmental organizations, the training of scholars, and through the use of extremist organizations.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in the US, Saudi Arabia’s connections to extremist groups began to come to light, and either Turkey or Iran filled the void left by Saudi Arabia in terms of influence over the Muslim world. Shia Muslims were predominantly under Iranian influence, while the Muslim Brotherhood organization supported by Turkey and Qatar gradually replaced Saudi dominance on the Sunni population.
United Arab Emirates (UAE), a Saudi ally and also the second biggest economy of the region, is also an important Middle Eastern player. The UAE plays an important role in Bangladesh’s foreign policy, which is influenced by its political, economic, and cultural ties with the country. Notably, the UAE was the first Arab nation in the Gulf to formally recognize Bangladesh and establish diplomatic ties. It was crucial in securing Bangladesh’s admission to the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC). Currently, Bangladesh’s top Middle Eastern economic partner and largest source of investment is the UAE. In 2019, two-way trade reached $1.3 billion, a substantial rise over the previous years. Notably, Bangladesh now receives remittances from the UAE more frequently than from the Saudi Arabia.
UAE was seen as the first country in the region to embrace multipolar geopolitical spectrum and encouraged Saudi Arabia to fit in. Mohammad Bin Zayed, the current President of UAE is regarded as the political guru of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, so it is likely to see Saudi and UAE traversing similar foreign policy. As these countries are the leading figures in the Arab polity, keeping fruitful relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi holds the key for not only Bangladesh, but for any other countries to expand ties with Arab countries.
One of the first countries to acknowledge the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country was Israel. During the Liberation War, it actively supported Bangladeshis, even providing guns and logistical support through India to the country’s freedom fighters. Bangladesh’s attitude toward Israel is expected to change shortly in light of the recent shift in many Middle Eastern countries’ attitudes. In terms of technology and good governance, normalising diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Israel may have some positive effects.
The post-pandemic and raging war in Europe are changing orientation in the region. A thaw is expected to emerge between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. As Turkish President Erdogan’s administration works to strengthen regional ties amid severe economic difficulties, rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia is expected to restore a crucial trading link. Similar push is being observed through Iraqi President’s visit to Tehran to restart Iran-Saudi talks. Positive outcome from such move is imperative for Dhaka to explore ties with countries that have significant Iranian influence without drawing backlash from major Gulf countries. Amidst Saudi and Turkey normalization, Bangladesh can seek to expand already growing Dhaka-Ankara relations.
As a developing nation, Bangladesh cannot stay bogged down with a specific bloc in the Middle East, and warming ties between the rival Middle Eastern powers will open new and lucrative opportunities for Dhaka. A pragmatic move from Dhaka to bridge these rivals will be worth it.