Bangladesh as the fourth largest Muslim country in terms of population has a good relation with the Muslim world though most of the Muslim countries opposed its birth in 1971. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was one of them mistrusting Bangladeshi Liberation War as an anti-Muslim identity. Over the time Bangladesh has created a good relation with Saudi Arabia in terms of sending its number of labour migrant personnel and earning huge remittance in return. Recent Bangladesh-Saudi relation has reached its apex. Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia has signed a defence pact on February 14 covering various issues. It is not a high time to reach an all-encompassing conclusion but we can try to have a closer look in it.
Almost 1800 army personnel will be deployed along Saudi-Yemen border under this defense pact. At the same time engineering sector of Bangladesh Army will provide constructional supports in KSA.
There was a whisper about Bangladesh-Saudi defence pact while Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina went to Riyadh to join Sheild-1 military exercise hosted by Saudi Arabia with 19 countries of Islamic military Counter Terrorism Coalition last year. Bangladesh has been a part of Islamic military Counter Terrorism Coalition since 2015. Though there is an excessive confusion among security analysts about this military alliance. Bangladesh Chief of Army Staff General Aziz Ahmed made the announcement about the possibility of defence pact with Saudi Arabia while visiting the newly-constructed Bangladesh Mission in Riyadh, according to a statement released by the Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia on February 3. Finally Bangladesh signed security pact on February 14. Principal Staff Officer of Bangladesh of the Armed Forces Division Lt Gen Md Mahfuzur Rahman and Deputy Chief of Staff of Saudi Armed Forces Lt Gen Mutlaq bin Salim inked the deal on behalf of their respective government at a ceremony at the Ministry of Defense in Riyadh.
This Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) covers a lot of areas of cooperation though Bangladesh Government has not released its copy yet. There is scattered information expressed by Foreign Minister and Foreign secretary of Bangladesh, diplomats in Riyadh. Bangladesh Chief of Army Staff General Aziz Ahmed assured from the very beginning that Bangladesh would mainly work on demining or mine clearance along with Saudi-Yemen border. Almost 1800 army personnel will be deployed along Saudi-Yemen border under this defense pact. At the same time engineering sector of Bangladesh Army will provide constructional supports in KSA. Under the MOU two countries will engage in cooperation in a wide range of areas as I have mentioned above, including military training, exercise and higher studies at defence institutions, exchange of intelligence information, exchange of military visits, enhancement of skill, maritime security, and curbing piracy in the sea.
Bangladeshi foreign policy decision making culture has always been centralized in the hands of the head of the government. What Bangabandhu said was Bangladesh’s foreign policy after 71. Military rulers also followed this dictatorial model. Debate in parliament on external relations is very rare. Subsequently Members of the Parliament and bulk of the Bangladeshi citizens are totally unaware about this military treaty. Media coverage is also very poor since government authority is carefully filtering information about this pact. Two Members of Parliament (Rashed Khan Menon and Fakhrul Imam) criticised government for maintaining utmost secrecy arguing this treaty as violation of constitutional obligation since Bangladesh foreign policy follows the principality of friendship to all but malice to none. This shows the actuality of Bangladesh foreign policy decision making avoiding much democratic process.
Past lessons from Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition show that it (IMCTC) could not create any abstract precedent in its activities though this alliance is consist of 41 members (most are Sunnis) including Bangladesh. Its aims and purposes are still unclear and ambiguous to military analysts. May be Bangladesh Military also are not much aware of their role in IMCTC. Question emerges from the point of Saudi’s hurried military alliance forming in the wake of Iranian emergence as a regional superpower. Bangladesh has always maintained balanced relations with Middle Eastern countries. But Bangladesh’s deeper military engagement with Saudi Arabia might cut a bad image since Saudi Arabia is leading a devastating war against humanity in Yemen. Bangladesh should move cautiously to military engagement in the Middle East. Current example of USA can be noted. Losing battle in Iraq had put USA in warm water. Though, Foreign Secretary Sahidul Haque assured that Bangladesh Army will not engage in any foreign war except UN Peace Keeping Missions and invasion of Makkah and Medina.
Bangladesh has always maintained balanced relations with Middle Eastern countries. But Bangladesh’s deeper military engagement with Saudi Arabia might cut a bad image since Saudi Arabia is leading a devastating war against humanity in Yemen.
Newly emerging relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia contains real value to some extent. There are some incentives from both parties to develop a healthy relation. Bangladeshi Prime Minister has paid four time visits within last two years. Awami League has always been portrayed as a secular political party before and after 71 among Islamic countries. Sheikh Hasina is holding power for a long time. She needs legitimacy from Muslim world since she is the leader of a Muslim populated country. Saudi’s recognition of Sheikh Hasina’s leadership is very crucial for her survival. Radical religious upheavals had a Saudi sponsored roots in Bangladeshi politics in past. So it can be a good incentive for PM to build a sound relation with Saudi monarchy. There are other tangible benefits for Bangladesh from this MOU. Bangladesh will get a bargaining cheap in improving labour condition of Bangladeshi labour migrants, easy terms in importing vast oil of Saudi Arabia, seeking help Rohingaya issue, etc. On the other hand Saudi Arabia may seek Bangladesh as to increase its number of allies to battle Shia ideology. Iranian advancement in the Middle East has gone underway. Saudi Arabia count not pull up Iranian political extension. Another secret intention Saudi Arabia may possess to recruit Bangladeshi soldiers to fight in the Middle East. Saudi monarch is very careful about internal upheavals. Too many casualties of Saudi nationals certainly will create problematic environment for Saudi authority to handle. So they may intend to recruit Bangladeshi soldiers as Saudi recruits Bangladeshi cheap labours! Whatever Bangladesh should carefully assessed. Bangladesh cannot go away from Saudi Arabia but a level of distance should be maintained at the same time obviously when it is question military engagement.
Author: Imran Nazir is studying International Relations at University of Dhaka