Bangladesh and Maldives: Bridging geographical distances through common political commitments, religious values
Hasina's visit to the Maldives is in keeping with Bangladesh's larger aspirations, writes Ozair Islam for South Asia Monitor
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has just ended a six-day visit to the Maldives, her first at the invitation of President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. The visit is significant not only for Bangladesh and the Maldives but also for other South Asian countries.
First, the trip will enhance existing relations on trade, connectivity, investment, agriculture, information and communication technology, human resource development, culture and community welfare, issues which came up for discussion.
Second, the signing of an MoU for the recruitment of skilled health care professionals will open a career window. It generates foreign exchange for Bangladesh by creating jobs for Bangladeshi professionals. It will also improve the overall health care industry in the Maldives.
Third, the agreement for Elimination of Double Taxation will ensure that honest taxpayers do not have to pay tax in two countries for the same income. This will effectively promote FDI in both countries by motivating foreign investors.
Fourth, Bangladesh gifted 13 military vehicles as a token of friendship to the Maldives. This will enhance security cooperation and strengthen the fraternal ties among the security forces of these countries.
Fifth, Bangladesh inked an agreement to lend a $200 million loan to the Maldives. This is the second time Bangladesh is going to lend to any country, after Sri Lanka. This again proves Bangladesh’s economic rise and financial strength in this region.
Sixth, the citizens of Maldives will get visa-free entry to Bangladesh. This will not only increase people-to-people connectivity but also push up trade volume and foster the tourism sector of Bangladesh.
Seventh, the agreement to transfer “sentenced prisoners” will help these countries to bring the culprits to their land for justice.
Finally, Hasina declared that Biman Bangladesh Airlines is set to launch air connectivity with the Maldives. This will boost bilateral trade and investment and have a long-run positive impact on the livelihood of the people.
What else could have been done?
This century is remarkable for minimizing geographical distance by removing visible and invisible trade barriers. As a maritime neighbour, Bangladesh and the Maldives could have discussed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to remove tariff and non-tariff barriers that artificially impede the free flow of goods and services.
Besides, they could have designed a roadmap for enhancing maritime connectivity by creating opportunities for the Maldives to use different seaports of Bangladesh. Both countries may have enhanced cooperation for getting the optimum output of a "Blue Economy" by utilizing marine resources -- oil, gas, sand, fish, seafood, minerals, sand and gravel. They could have been planned to work together to counter the climate crisis.
Hasina's visit to the Maldives reflects the importance it attaches to this bilateral relationship. It is an effort from Bangladesh to deepen ties with other South Asian countries as part of the country's aspiration to become a 'middle power'.
The Maldives removed duty on Bangladeshi goods in 2011, boosting Bangladeshi exports especially pharmaceutical products. Many Bangladeshi migrants, some 70-80,000, work in the Maldives. During Covid-19, Bangladesh Navy sent more than 100 tonnes of food and pharmaceutical goods to Male. The Bangladesh Air Force participated in the Covid vaccination programme in the Maldives in 2021.
There are, however, many critical issues, equally important for both countries, that could have been addressed to make the visit more fruitful. As both countries have similar religious values, cultural practices, and developmental aspirations, they should have declared a clearly defined plan on how they are going to cooperate with each other in the coming days to take their ties to a new plane in bilateral cooperation.
(The writer is a human rights activist and an NGO consultant. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)