Bangladesh-Maldives Bilateral Relations: Looking Beyond the Horizon

Rear Admiral Nazmul Hassan writes for the Daily Sun on the occasion of the official visit of Foreign Minister of the Maldives

9 February, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Bangladesh-Maldives Bilateral Relations: Looking Beyond the Horizon

The Maldives is a tropical paradise of deep blue seas, colourful coral reefs, white sandy beaches and palm trees. Steeped in natural beauty, its people have long spent their days savouring the very essence of idle living. While it is the perfect place to sit on a beach and watch a sunset, it is also a geographical marvel, knowing that there are thousands of fishes swimming around the vivid corals just a few feet away from where one is sitting.

In the last decade, the Maldives has become a success story of development. Today, the country has the lowest poverty rate and highest per capita income in South Asia. Nearly all Maldivian children are enrolled in primary schools. With a literacy rate approaching 100%, the average life expectancy has increased up to 78 years. Rapid growth of infrastructure, world class tourism industry, and the expansion of public services propelled the Maldives into middle-income country status in 2011. The Maldives won the best tourist destination of the world award in 2020.

Diversifying the economy beyond tourism and fishing, increasing employment opportunities, reviving the economy from the effects of the Pandemic are some of the current challenges facing the Government of the Maldives. Over the longer term, Maldivian authorities are concerned about the impact of climate change, and possible sea level rise in this low-lying country, where 80% of the land is barely 1 meter or less above sea level.

Country Profile:

The Republic of Maldives is consisted of 1200 islands in the Indian Ocean with an estimated population of 530,000 (2019). The country is composed of 26 atolls and the population is dispersed across 200 inhabited islands. There are additional 150+ islands which have been developed to operate only as tourist resorts. Despite the dispersal of land, small population, and limited resources, the Maldives has achieved remarkable economic progress over the last two decades. The country maintained an average GDP growth rate of 6%. The economy is primarily based on tourism and tourism related sectors which earn almost 70% of the country’s revenue. GDP per capita of the Maldives reached $11,890 in 2018 and the Maldives advanced to an upper middle-income country. Though it has made great strides towards development, the country is vulnerable to climate change, especially sea level rise. The country’s exposure to natural hazards and climate vulnerability poses a threat to lives, livelihoods and the economy. Nevertheless, the economic growth of the past few years has created many jobs. Today, the Maldives depends on skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workforce from other countries as well.

The Covid-19 outbreak had a debilitating effect on tourism, which directly and indirectly, accounts for two-thirds of GDP. Revenue fell by an estimated 23.4 percent in the first quarter of 2020 as tourism-related revenue contracted, whereas spending grew by 10.2 percent. Tourism inflows remained anemic even after borders reopened in mid-July 2020. Construction sector, the other main driver of growth, also slumped due to logistical difficulties and resulted into repatriation of foreign workers in 2020. The latest forecasts by the Ministry of Finance anticipate a contraction in GDP in the range of 30 percent in a worst-case scenario.

Bangladesh in the Maldives:

Bangladesh attaches great importance to its relations with the island state of the Maldives. Both the countries are members of the UN, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the OIC, the Commonwealth, SAARC as well as many other regional and international organisations. The Maldives recognised Bangladesh on 12 April 1972. Diplomatic relations between the two countries was established in 1978 and the High Commission was opened in 1998. The Maldives opened its High Commission in Bangladesh in 2008. However, its High Commission in Dhaka was closed in April 2014 and reopened in October 2015. Bilateral relations between the two countries have grown steadily over the years. A number of agreements have been signed on Culture, Education, Health, Sports, the Waiver of Visas, Air Services etc.

As a friendly South Asian neighbour, Bangladesh extended the following assistance to the Maldives during the Pandemic:

- BNS SOMUDRA AVIJAN arrived on a goodwill visit in April 2020. The ship carried 100 tonnes of food and medical supplies including 20,000 PPEs.

- BAF Transport Aircraft C130 arrived on two occasions in April and May 2020. The mission included the following:

- Transporting stranded Maldivian medical students and families from Nepal and Bangladesh to Male’.

- Bringing 10 tonnes of food and medical supplies

- Carrying stranded Bangladeshi Expatriates home, on its return passage

- A 10-member Bangladesh Armed Forces Medical Team provided medical support for 2 months in the Maldives

Expatriates from Bangladesh: Bangladesh is the top sourcing country for expatriate workforce in the Maldives. According to the information of Ministry of Economic Development of the Maldives, the number of Bangladeshi expatriates working in the Maldives was 1,10,084 in 2019. Construction sector employed more than 50% of these expatriates.  Other prominent sectors for employment are tourism, hotels, restaurants and wholesale and retail trade etc. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, about 15,000 Bangladeshi expatriates returned to Bangladesh. Furthermore, a good number of Bangladeshi doctors (around 200) are also working in the Maldives. The Government of the Maldives is formulating regulations to limit the number of expatriates in the Maldives from a single country. In addition, Government has already promulgated regulation to employ certain percentage of Maldivian citizens in the tourist resorts. Therefore, it is important for Bangladesh to explore new avenues of bilateral cooperation including trade and commerce, tourism, deep sea fishing etc. in addition to the human resources placement in skilled/professional categories.

Trade Relations: The volume of trade between Bangladesh and the Maldives is rather low, marked by irregular flow of goods. The Maldives conducts occasional import of commodities as required from time to time. Though there is no trade agreement between the two countries currently, there remain opportunities for increasing trade between the two countries under SAFTA. Exchange of trade and business delegations would be an important step in this regard. Both countries could also organise trade and business fairs and exhibitions. Bangladesh is in a position to provide the Maldives with international standard high-quality products such as readymade garments, medicine, jute and leather goods, plastic items, ceramic items etc. at competitive prices. Establishment of direct shipping links between Bangladesh and the Maldives and removal of some trade barriers at the Maldives end could go a long way in enhancing bilateral trade.

Areas of Existing Cooperation:

Cooperation in Human Resources Sector: The Government of the Maldives is interested to recruit skilled professionals from Bangladesh, especially in the medical, engineering and education sectors. An MoU on placement of manpower to the Maldives was signed in 2011. A new MoU is scheduled to be signed on 9 February, during the visit of the Hon’ble Foreign Minister of the Maldives to Bangladesh.

Health Care: Since 2009, when the Maldivian Government requested for recruiting physicians from Bangladesh, a number of Bangladeshi doctors and specialists have been serving in the Maldives with repute. With the outbreak of the pandemic, the Maldives has requested to recruit more health professionals from Bangladesh on an urgent basis. In 2014, an MoU in the area of “Healthcare and Medical Sciences” was concluded for increasing cooperation between the health sectors of the two countries. Currently, a good number of Maldivian students are availing MBBS and BDS study opportunities in various public and private medical colleges in Bangladesh. In keeping with the excellent bilateral ties, every year, the Government of Bangladesh is extending full scholarship opportunities to students from the Maldives in the top-ranking medical colleges in Bangladesh.

Cooperation in Education: An MoU between Bangladesh and the Maldives on cooperation in Education was signed in 2011. The MoU opened up avenues of cooperation in the field of education. The Maldives sought assistance from Bangladesh in the field of training Maldivian trainers and teachers for skill development. Students of the Maldives have scope to study in Bangladeshi private and public universities.

Cooperation in Civil Aviation: An Air Services Agreement (ASA) between the two countries was signed quite some time back. At present, Maldivian Airlines is operating from Male’ to Dhaka, twice a week; however, no Bangladeshi airline is operating between Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Cooperation in Defence: Bangladesh Armed Forces offers different courses to the Maldives National Defence Force Personnel on a regular basis. Bangladesh Navy has regularly sent ships to the Maldives for goodwill visits in the past. Bangladesh is also in a position to offer the Maldives to build their smaller ships and craft for its Coast Guard from the Naval Shipyard/Dockyard.

Bilateral Engagement in Climate Change: Bangladesh being one of the worst affected countries by climate change shares similar concerns with the Maldives and works together to mitigate the adverse impacts of climate change and to accelerate adaptation action.

Areas of Potential Cooperation for Future:   

Both countries are in discussion to formalise a bilateral mechanism for enhancing cooperation in trade and commerce, finance, ICT and several other sectors. The Maldivian government as well as private entrepreneurs may share their expertise and support in the Blue Economy sector of Bangladesh, specially, in deep sea fishing. The governments of the Maldives and Bangladesh could collaborate more, especially in the areas of pharmaceutical and medical supplies. Maldivian Government has long expressed interest to import river sand from Bangladesh to meet the requirements of construction industry in the Maldives. Bangladesh tourism industry could benefit from the experience and skill of the Maldivian tourism industry. A linkage program for strengthening cooperation between the private tour operators of both the countries are being considered for enhancement of marketing activities amongst the private sectors. Export of textile products and RMG to the Maldives is another potential sector. However, enhancing bilateral trade and commerce demands direct transport linkages. In order to promote bilateral trade, direct shipping links between the two countries is essential. As is evident from above, both countries have immense potential to collaborate closely in future in a wide range of areas for mutual benefit.

Visit of Hon’ble Foreign Minister of the Maldives

In the backdrop of an emerging range of potential sectors for mutual cooperation, the visit of the Hon’ble Foreign Minister of the Maldives, H.E. Abdulla Shahid to Dhaka from 8th to 11th February 2021 is very significant. Such a bilateral visit is taking place after several years. MOUs are planned to be signed during the visit on: Placement of Human Resources and Collaboration between the Foreign Service Academy of Bangladesh and Foreign Service Institute of the Maldives. Both sides are likely to discuss various bilateral issues including: trade and commerce, economic and technical cooperation, expatriate workers, cooperation in health sector in the post pandemic period etc. The two sides are also expected to discuss the details of the upcoming visit of the Hon’ble President of the Maldives, H.E. Ibrahim Mohamed Solih to Dhaka in March 2021. The Hon’ble President of the Maldives is scheduled to attend the Birth Centenary Program of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at the invitation of the Hon’ble President of Bangladesh, H.E. Md. Abdul Hamid. The Government and the people of Bangladesh are looking forward to welcome the Maldivian Foreign Minister in February and the Hon’ble President of the Maldives in March to Bangladesh. These visits hold promise to open up a new horizon of bilateral relations between Bangladesh and the Maldives, with the ultimate goal of shared prosperity for the people of both countries.

 

The writer is Bangladesh High Commissioner to the Maldives

 


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