While Bangladesh depends on the remittance that flows from the Gulf States, it cannot ignore the opportunities that the new bloc may present
As the geopolitical fault lines in Asia begin to shift, Dhaka has found itself in a unique position. The realignment of ties in the Muslim world as signalled by the recent rift in Saudi-Pakistan ties has opened new doors for the Muslim-majority nations in South and South-East Asia. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC), which has long served as the primary bloc for Muslim-majority countries under the implicit leadership of Saudi Arabia, is now being challenged by rising powers. The proposed bloc, led by Turkey, Qatar, Iran and Malaysia, has offered an alternative to the dominion of the Gulf-countries.
While the new bloc came into formation at the Kuala Lumpur Summit in 2019, the recent fallout in Saudi-Pak relations may bolster its role in the Muslim world, provided Pakistan joins its ranks. At the inaugural summit, Pakistan withdrew at the last moment, buckling to pressure from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, the Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s recent rebuke of the Saudis and the OIC on their lack of action on the issue of Kashmir may change the dynamics. Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned that if the OIC failed to meet Pakistan’s expectation to convene a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, he would be “compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.”
This statement was seen as a veiled reference to the alternative bloc formed in Kuala Lumpur and it prompted Riyadh to immediately demand repayment of $1 billion of a $6.2 billion package announced in November 2018, when Islamabad was struggling with a rapidly expanding trade deficit and declining foreign reserves. This move has the potential to tilt Pakistan towards the Turkey-Malaysia bloc. Pakistan will certainly raise the prominence of the new bloc and will present a real threat to the dominance of OIC and the Gulf countries in the Muslim world.
Enter – Bangladesh. Historically, Dhaka has maintained strong ties with its fellow Muslim nations since joining OIC in 1974 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The relationship was formed based on Muslim solidarity and development cooperation. The newly independent nation desperately needed the support of the wealthy states in the bloc to get out of poverty. The recognition of Bangladesh by the OIC opened doors to export manpower, which, to date, forms the bulk of Bangladesh’s economy. Member-states of OIC have also assisted Bangladesh by providing diplomatic support in times of crisis. In the backdrop of OIC, Bangladesh has also developed individual friendly ties to these Muslim nations thanks to Bangladeshi diplomats and policymakers’ impressive diplomatic skills. While strong ties with the OIC member states have helped Bangladesh throughout its existence, they have also led to the conundrum that the country may face in the coming months.
The prospect of an alternative bloc means that Bangladeshi diplomats will need to be vigilant when formulating foreign policies. While Bangladesh depends on the remittance that flows from the Gulf States, it cannot ignore the opportunities that the new bloc may present. Dhaka needs to be cognizant of the fact that as the Gulf States move towards indigenization and automation of labour, the demand for cheap foreign labour may soon evaporate. At the same time, the fast-growing economies and the large populations of the Turkey-Malaysia bloc nations can significantly aid the export-oriented economy of Bangladesh.
At the summit in 2019, economic cooperation between the Muslim countries was prioritised to decrease reliance on the Western states. While the prospect of an economic community arising from this bloc may be slim and far-fetched, Dhaka can still be an economic beneficiary if it develops close ties with the participating countries through the bloc. Bangladesh can also be a beneficiary of the increasing diplomatic prowess that some of the Turkey-Malaysia bloc countries hold. The fast-economic growth coupled with a large Muslim population and the boost in its reputation that Bangladesh has gained over the last decade may allow Dhaka to have a leadership role in the new bloc. Such an opportunity may be enticing for the political leadership in Bangladesh
The South Asian nation can approach the rift in two possible ways – to align itself with one of the blocs, or to choose multi-alignment, i.e. maintain a relationship with both the blocs and utilize the benefits as per its strategic needs. Both options have their pros and cons, and policymakers in Bangladesh need to decide wisely. In the event of alignment with OIC, Bangladesh can continue reaping the benefits of the manpower export agreements that it has in place with the Gulf States. The country may also be the lucrative beneficiary of military and defence cooperation contracts if Pakistani troops are withdrawn from Saudi Arabia.
As the United Nations plans to gradually Africanize its peacekeeping forces in Africa, a defence cooperation contract with the Kingdom can be greatly beneficial for the Bangladeshi armed forces. In terms of foreign relations and diplomatic strength, Bangladesh could move closer to the United States and other Western nations if it chooses to ally with Saudi-led OIC along with other Gulf countries. However, such a move may harm the close economic ties Bangladesh has developed with China. The recent rapprochement with Israel by the Gulf States may also contradict the long-standing policy of support for the Palestinian cause that commands popular support in Bangladesh.
Officially, Bangladesh has maintained a foreign policy of friendliness towards all and malice to none and it has succeeded in abiding by it. It can continue to the same path and act as a mediator between OIC and the proposed-alternative bloc. However, as the world moves towards complex multi-polarity, Dhaka needs to re-evaluate its foreign policy to achieve the best possible outcome. Policymakers in Bangladesh may be in for a tough decision in the coming years.
Brig General Md Manzur Qader (Retd) is Chairman, Integrated Business Initiative limited. E-mail- firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com