After the recent visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, relations between the two countries have reached new heights. And it is evident when Bangladesh has played a notable role in delisting Saudi-led coalition from the UN blacklist for its alleged 'grave violations' against children during its on-going armed conflict in Yemen.
Not long after Saudi Arabia was blacklisted by the United Nations early this month, Dhaka along with Jordan, United Arab Emirates and some other countries lodged strong protests that coupled with other factors had prompted the UN to remove the coalition from the blacklist.
This is the latest testimony that Bangladesh is not a fair-weather friend of Saudi Arabia. It was, it is and it will be by the side of the Kingdom in need of hours as both countries have been sharing dissimilar views on major regional and international issues since Dhaka joined the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 1974 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Earlier, Bangladesh participated in the Saudi-led coalition, although it was only aimed at sharing military intelligence with other 34 coalition member countries. Notably, a contingent of Bangladesh Armed Forces was also part of the Operation Desert Storm formed under the Allied Command during the Gulf war in 1991 to drive out Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
It is not clear whether Bangladesh would contribute its armed forces to the Saudi-led coalition in the future. But the possibility was not ruled out by the Bangladesh government when Sheikh Hasina said in a press conference in Dhaka that if there is a need to protect and safeguard the Two Holiest Mosques in Makkah and Medinah, Bangladesh would consider sending soldiers. This is because Bangladesh is seamlessly bound with Saudi Arabia not only by common interests, but also by common values as a key Muslim majority country with a population of over 160 million.
Judged by above-mentioned factors, Bangladesh looks more than ready to extend its cooperation in order to further strengthen bilateral ties with the Kingdom, but Dhaka's gesture was not fully reflected in the recent visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Riyadh. Only an MoU for political consultation between foreign ministries of the two countries and an agreement at the private level were inked, whereas there were at least 6 agreements expected to be signed on various economic fields.
What was most important was that everyone was awaiting a paradigm shift in the recruitment of Bangladeshi workers in the Kingdom. Although, there was no news from the Saudi side about the complete opening of its labour market for Bangladeshis, Press Secretary of Sheikh Hasina Ihsanul Karim disclosed to the press that the Kingdom has expressed its keenness to hire five lakh Bangladeshi workers.
This disclosure was probably referred to Saudi Arabia's earlier plan to recruit five lakh domestic helpers mainly drivers and maids. And accordingly, Dhaka started deployment of maids in the Saudi market but it did not make much headway since Bangladeshi maids have been unable to adjust themselves to the Saudi society. According to published reports in the Saudi media, nearly half of Bangladeshi maids have returned back home proving that maids deployment for Bangladesh is not feasible in the Kingdom. Currently, a little more than 40, 000 Bangladeshi maids are working in Saudi Arabia.
But Bangladesh Prime Minister's visit has opened up a new dimension in the Saudi-Bangladesh relations when two countries placed emphasis on cooperation in the field of defence. Sheikh Hasina had extended cooperation of Bangladesh army with its Saudi counterpart in the areas of engineering and construction projects noting that Bangladesh armed forces have a special construction battalion and an engineering unit.
There is bright scope for cooperation in the defence sector since Saudi Arabia has been striving hard to build a strong armed force as the country has become world's third largest spender on defence. The Kingdom has already concentrated on the development of defence technology and equipment locally.
And accordingly, Saudi Arabia has started a military projectiles facility in cooperation with South Africa and it was inaugurated by the South African President Jacob Zuma during his visit to the Kingdom early this year. India is also seeking defence collaboration with Saudi Arabia. During the recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Kingdom, he made a proposal to join hands with Saudi Arabia to manufacture defence equipment which could initially be used by both countries and eventually exported to other countries.
With the possibility of bilateral defence cooperation in the future, swapping of military intelligence is the need of hours between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia since both countries have been encountering serious identical menace of terrorism in the name of Islam. And this issue was discussed prominently in a meeting between Sheikh Hasina and Saudi Intelligence Chief Khalid Ali Humaidan.
Bangladesh has probably much to offer to the Kingdom in the form of defence cooperation since it has become one of the world's largest donors of troops to the UN peacekeeping forces. Currently, over 7,200 Bangladeshi armed personnel have been deployed in at least 13 trouble-prone countries to keep peace.
During her talks with the Saudi leadership, Sheikh Hasina and her counterpart the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz apparently reached a consensus to work together for world peace and harmony in order to strengthen cooperation among the Muslim countries. The two leaders agreed to find measures to keep peace and stability worldwide.
Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have been bound together by common interests and mutual benefits with an army of around 1.5 million Bangladeshis living and working in the Kingdom supporting economies of both countries. It is hoped that these "mutual benefits" will complement the materialization of ambitious goals set by both countries with the Kingdom announcing its Vision 2030 to wean itself off oil-based economy and Bangladesh declaring its Vision 2021 to become a middle income country.
Shamsul Huda is a senior Bangladeshi journalist based in Saudi Arabia