Relations between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have now gone beyond the labour market and have entered the areas of economy, investment, defence and more. How do you see this turn in relations between the two countries?

In recent years, Saudi businessmen have been showing interest in investing in Bangladesh. Bangladesh's prime minister Sheikh Hasina has taken the interest of Saudi businessmen into consideration and is eager to extend all sorts of cooperation. I want to place much importance on the matter of expanding relations. We expect that the concerned ministries pay attention to fulfilling their commitments in the sectors where the Saudis are interested in investing. We hope they work on improving the investment environment. If that is done, then top Saudi investors who are doing business with great repute all around the world, will be encouraged to invest in Bangladesh.

With the 2018 visit of prime minister Sheikh Hasina to Saudi Arabia, relations between the two countries moved on to strategic cooperation too. How far has that visit contributed to deepening political cooperation?

Before 2019, prime minister Sheikh Hasina visited Saudi Arabia five times in six years. These visits reflect the strong ties between the two countries. The top leadership of both the countries are giving us inspiration and guidance in consolidating the relations further. Accordingly, the Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud is coming on a visit to Bangladesh. We hope important progress will be made during this visit. This visit proves how much importance Saudi Arabia is attaching to Bangladesh.

Several ministers from Saudi Arabia have visited Bangladesh in recent times, including the transport minister Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser. Certain agreements and MOUs were signed during these visits. Several decisions were taken. How much progress has been made on these matters?

The Saudi transport minister visited just two months ago so you can't expect the decisions taken then to be implemented so soon. However, the obstacles that exist to the implementation of these decisions will be removed. The concerned persons have assured us of their utmost efforts in this regard. But then again, there are certain bureaucratic procedures to be followed. Hopeful these will not be a problem. During a recent virtual meeting in this regard it was decided that, in keeping with the previous decisions, strong political and diplomatic efforts will be made to implement the investment proposals.

How interested is Saudi Arabia in investing in Bangladesh's mega projects?

Saudi investors are looking at Bangladesh as a new possibility of investment. They are interested in investing in the areas of ship building, manufacture of medical equipment, fertiliser production, paper mills, car spare parts, readymade garments, pharmaceuticals and more. The port management Saudi company, Red Sea Gateway, is interested in investing 1.20 billion dollars (120 crore dollars) in Bangladesh. They are basically interested in investing in Chittagong Port. The energy company Aqua Power has declared an investment of 3.50 billion dollars (350 crore dollars) in Bangladesh and has already invested 600 million dollars (60 crore dollars) in a power plant. A Saudi business firm has declared an investment of 1.80 billion dollars (180 crore dollars) in the engineering sector. In all, at least 23 Saudi firms are interested in investing in Bangladesh.

Quite a few years ago a Saudi firm, Al Salem Aviation, proposed investment in the Lalmonirhat airport. The proposal was to make that airport in North Bengal a hub of regional connectivity. What happened to that proposal finally?

The unfortunate truth is that no progress has been made on that proposal. The proposal was made five years ago. We are having to wait long for a response. When any company wants to invest, they focus on making their investment speedily. The faster they put their capital to use, the faster they get their profits. I feel there is ample scope for investment in Bangladesh's civil aviation and airport management. If Bangladesh displays its willingness in this regard, the Saudi firms will come forward. The Saudi businessmen are interested in investing in Bangladesh's domestic flight operations and domestic airport management.

Is Saudi Arabia taking up any new programme with Umrah and healthcare in mind?

Tourism is the priority of the Saudi Vision 2030. Every year thousands and thousands of tourists visit Saudi Arabia. We are initially considering including at least 30 countries in various initiatives. The tourists visiting Saudi Arabia will be able to avail special medical services at reputed hospitals there. There are plans to provide treatment at specialised hospitals to those coming to Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah. I have proposed to the Saudi foreign ministry to add Bangladesh to this. I will begin work on this once I receive a reply to my letter from the Saudi foreign ministry.

What sort of cooperation are you considering to take from Bangladesh to establish an environment-friendly Saudi Arabia along with protecting the environment of the Middle East as a whole?

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman has declared establishment of an environment-friendly Saudi Arabia and an environment-friendly Middle East. This is an ambitious project. We want to protect the environment of Saudi Arabia and the Middle East with the use of renewable energy. Bangladesh has a laudable role in tackling climate change. The Bangladesh prime minister even received a UN award for this contribution. We want to use the Bangladesh experience in climate change. We want to learn from Bangladesh about expanding the green belt, we want to learn about agriculture from the experience and skills of the Bangladesh farmers. We want to import seedlings and trees from Bangladesh that will be suitable to the Saudi climate. We are adding this to the many areas in the expansion of cooperation with Bangladesh.

Around 50,000 Rohingyas went to Saudi Arabia using Bangladeshi passports and are now illegal over there. The matter has been pending for quite a few years. Has this been a thorn in the relations between the two countries?

The number is no long just 50,000. There are now 65,000 Rohingyas who are staying illegally in Saudi Arabia, having used Bangladeshi passports to go there. Saudi Arabia raised the issue for discussion six years ago. There is a high level committee in this regard. The issue is sensitive to both countries. We have requested the Bangladesh missions in Riyadh and Jeddah to give those persons passports or any sort of ID. We have given Bangladesh a list of the names of the Rohingyas, their passport details and the date they entered Saudi Arabia. We want any form of ID to legalise their stay in Saudi Arabia.

When I arrived in Bangladesh two years ago, resolving this issue was my priority. If they have gone on any Bangladeshi passport, let the passport be renewed. The 68,000 Rohingyas who have gone to Saudi Arabia will not be sent back, but they are constantly facing problems. They are unable to admit their children to school. They cannot open bank accounts. Without legal documentation, they are considered illegal. Saudi Arabia will not keep stateless people. Bangladesh won't either. A few days ago I was informed by Bangladesh that it has renewed passports for 1600 persons from that list of 68,000. Can you imagine how long it will take to finish that list of 68,000 if only 1600 passports have been renewed so far? We want this to speed up. Both sides need a speedy solution to this problem.

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