Sunday, February 27, 2011
Daily Sun, February 26th., 2011
Bangladesh foreign policy in the Middle East: Time to reflect on realities
M. Serajul IslamIt is just not that we are ignored by the media in the Middle East. Even in the process of recruitment and payment of salaries and other privileges, our workers get an unfair deal compared to workers from other countries. The general perception among our workers in the Middle East is that for the same type of work they do, workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines get substantially more pay and perks
A friend who travels frequently to UAE raised a provocative issue in a private discussion recently. He said that one of his biggest disappointments is when he reads the UAE English dailies. These papers devote pages to news from the countries from where the expatriates come to the country. There are two pages in these papers devoted to India and the same number to Pakistan. Even the Philippines have a page. Sadly, Bangladesh is ignored except for isolated news about the country and that too, with a negative twist. The same treatment is given to Bangladesh in the media of the other countries in the region.
Yet 5 million of our people give their hearts and souls for the betterment of life and living of the citizens of these oil rich Middle East countries. We are perhaps the only country among those whose people work in such large numbers in the Middle East to have included in its Constitution a pledge to “preserve, consolidate and strengthen fraternal relations among Muslim countries.”
It is just not that we are ignored by the media in the Middle East. Even in the process of recruitment and payment of salaries and other privileges, our workers get an unfair deal compared to workers from other countries. The general perception among our workers in the Middle East is that for the same type of work they do, workers from India, Pakistan and the Philippines get substantially more pay and perks.
The expatriates blamed the BNP while in power and have done the same with the AL in office now. Both have dismissed such complaint forcefully. They have both described Bangladesh’s relations with the countries in the Middle East as a major focus of the country’s foreign policy and have claimed that such a policy in the region has been successful.
There is something seriously amiss here because the claim of the BNP and the AL can be true only when the public perception is incorrect. Unfortunately, there is truth in the public perception, not entirely but substantially. Recently, the Chairman of Bangladesh Human Rights Commission raised the issue of human rights in the context of Bangladesh Embassies. He was no doubt referring to the sufferings of our expatriates in the ME when they seek relief from miseries in their places of work from the Embassies.
In recent times, we are also hearing disturbing news that some of the ME countries are sending back Bangladeshis home and not recruiting new manpower from Bangladesh. These developments have already caused a perceptible decline of flow of remittance. The decline in flow of remittance has been partly the cause of the global recession that has hit these countries badly. However, the demand for the type of manpower we send to these countries has not been affected by global recession. In fact, in Saudi Arabia, such a demand has increased and yet our manpower is not being favoured.
Two issues in our politics have caused wrong perception in these countries about Islam in Bangladesh that have led them to pause on recruiting our manpower. These issues are the trial of the war criminals and the move to ban religious based parties. These have led these countries to conclude that there is a move against Islam in Bangladesh. When Sheikh Hasina had visited Saudi Arabia in April 2009, the issues had come up in her discussions with the Saudi Government. At that time, there were statements from official sources in Bangladesh that the Saudi Government would relax on the issue of ‘Ikema’ that made it illegal for expatriates to change jobs to bring respite to nearly 2 hundred thousand Bangladeshis who were running from Saudi authorities for violating the ‘Ikema’. That has not yet happened that would no doubt suggest that the Saudi Government is not convinced on its concerns about Islam in Bangladesh.
The issue of trial of war criminals and banning of religion based parties are Bangladesh’s internal matters and thus should be of no concern of these countries. Nevertheless, Islam as a religion is as much a matter of concern of these countries as it is ours. The problem is our failure to explain in pursuing these two extremely important national objectives, we are not doing anything against Islam which is the religion of the overwhelming majority of Bangladeshis. We have failed to do that. In fact, we have not seen any serious initiative by the Government in this regard apart from the visits by the Prime Minister to Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have not succeeded in re-opening our manpower market. In the meantime, the demands for the trials of the war criminals and secularism have become louder with unfortunately little to show in terms of achievement.
It is in the context of the above, with the future of millions of Bangladeshis in the region and future export of manpower at stake that we need to take a serious look at our foreign policy initiative in the Middle East. We must go ahead with the war trials and revive secularism. We must do the first because it is what the overwhelming majority of our people want. We must do the latter because that is a directive from the Supreme Court. However, if we value our relations with the ME and feel we need to protect the interests of the expatriates and the country, we also need to keep these governments informed on what we are doing with these issues. Of course, there must be diplomatic efforts being carried out by our Government but if these have been carried out through our Ambassadors as it appears to be, then I am afraid they are not expected to be treated by the hosts as much more than routine diplomatic efforts.
It is high time for us to do more. We should send to these countries special envoys from the Prime Minister. In fact, such envoys should have been sent long ago. Former President Ershad, who is a part of this Government, has great acceptance in Saudi Arabia and UAE and could be the perfect Special envoy to explain the Bangladesh views on the issues bothering these countries. If the issue is opening door in the region at the highest level, then the Government has the best man available and should make use of him.
The issue of Bangladesh in the media in the Middle East has gone by default for two reasons. Bangladeshis in the region lack the clout that the Indians and the Pakistanis have who play important roles in the media and business and both have a negative attitude towards Bangladesh. Nevertheless, our ME policy has to be revisited to serve the interests of our unfortunate expatriates and also in the context of the upheaval the region is now witnessing. Although, the upheaval may lead to loss of the Libyan market for our manpower export, the other oil rich ME countries where we send the bulk of our manpower are not likely to suffer any immediate impact. Diplomatic contacts with them at this critical juncture at a very high level may bring Bangladesh a rich harvest of economic benefits in the future.
Writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.
Posted by Ambassador Serajul Islam