Bangladesh in the Middle East
“Middle East” -- the two most favourite words to thousands of young men in Bangladesh. About fifteen years back, a television drama showed a young man, who always kept saying -- “Taka Den, Dubai Jamu” (Give me money, I will go to Dubai). Like that young fellow, each year thousands of young men from rural Bangladesh want to go to their dream destination.
Young men from Bangladesh go to the Middle East for economic reliance. Over the years, they send money back home to their families and our country reaps the benefits of these hard earned foreign currencies.
In fiscal year (FY) 2007-08 we received $4.97 billion from the Middle East as inward remittances, which is around 6.3 percent of our country's GDP.
My question is, when those young men contribute to the country's foreign exchange earnings, what do we do to facilitate them? What have we done to uphold Bangladesh's name in the Middle East? Why is Bangladesh unheard of in the Middle East?
As per the latest Statistical Year Book and sources from the Bureau of Manpower, roughly 3.7 million Bangladeshi workers are currently working in the Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Oman, which constitutes around 25.3 percent of the total labour force of those countries.
The remittances inflow from these countries doubled from $2.4 billion in FY 2003-04 to $4.97 billion in 2007-08. In the last fiscal year, Bangladesh received 63 percent of the total remittances inflow from the Middle East.
Since 2004, remittance inflow from the above mentioned countries increased at an average rate of 20 percent. However, the number of new workers migrating to those countries has significantly declined over the years.
In 2007, about 0.2 million workers went to Saudi Arabia from Bangladesh, whereas in 2008, the number has dropped to 0.13 million. The number of new entrants also declined in Bahrain and Kuwait.
Bangladesh, being predominantly a Muslim country, should leverage its relationship with other Muslim countries. Despite what we have seen on the electronic media, about how Bangladeshi workers are being harassed by law enforcers in those countries, my UAE experience reveals that often Indian or Pakistani criminals are passed on as Bangladeshis.
According to an Indian taxi driver in Jeddah, the crime list suggests Yemenis, Pakistanis, Philippinos come before Bangladeshis, if not some other countries too. Even then, Bangladeshis face hurdles in getting “transfer visa” (in fact this is closed now), they are not being paid regularly or arrested by law enforcing agencies all of a sudden. New visa issuances have almost stopped in all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Our foreign missions should be responsible for ensuring safety, security, well-being and respect of our workers. They should play an active role to make sure that our workers are paid at par in the foreign market and are aware of their rights. Till now, our country depended on the success of the manpower agencies. However, the prevalent malpractices and fraudulent activities of these agencies do not guarantee safe migration.
Post 9/11, the movement of workers was affected all around the world. If foreign countries feel threatened, it will not bring any good for us. However to resolve these issues, we need to develop a trustworthy, stable, and long-term relationship with our partner countries, especially with their upper echelon in the Middle East.
There is also a need for efficient banking and investment services. The workers need secured and low cost fund-transfer services. In Bangladesh, a low share of remittance enters through official channels, largely due to the migrant workers' lack of knowledge on the formal sector and the time and cost involved in channeling money through the formal sector.
Bangladesh Bank has taken several measures over the years, like competitive exchange rates, fixing a time limit for remittance transfer or credit to the beneficiary's account, allowing expansion of exchange houses and correspondent banks, and encouraging banks, which facilitated the growth of remittances inflow.
We still have a long way to go in terms of automation and building technological infrastructure. We may also facilitate alternate distribution channels by including the MFI's into the remittance grid. Added to these, come efficient and effective guidance at the departure counter (having a bank account number or at least 2 weeks of formal training, can also be included as mandatory documents by the immigration department) in the airports.
We need to remember that Bangladesh has mostly been a low skill manpower exporting country, while our neighboring countries (India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan) were able to send workers at mid to high skill levels.
Hence, it is time that we raise our level of expertise if we want to make our presence felt in the Middle Eastern and enter the next trajectory of employment.
Now let's get into the issue of Bangladesh not being heard off in the Middle East. In late January, a regional head of a large global bank told me, “Despite being a predominantly Muslim country, I wonder why Bangladesh is not even mapped in the Middle East or considered as a destination for Middle East investment.” Similarly, a senior executive in a Saudi Bank explained why they bought a bank in Pakistan, and not in Bangladesh, or why their board feels that Pakistan will by all means come out of the mess.
Being a Muslim country, while Pakistan was able to attract the large sovereign funds of the Middle East based institutional investors; Bangladesh could not convey the message to those investors that it also has immense potential to be an Islamic financials destination.
Hence, we should develop country specific strategies and policies to promote Bangladesh in the Middle East. The government may appoint a special adviser, whose role will be to strengthen the relationship with the Middle East and capture the highest possible benefit from the GCC countries. The key to success is “Effective Relationship Management”.