The maiden visit of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman to the UK on 8 January 1972 after his release from Pakistan prison ‘set the tone’ for the bilateral relations between the countries, British High Commissioner in Dhaka Robert Chatterton Dickson said.
“It’s a very deep and organic relationship. It’s long historic ties, education ties, family connections with 600,000 Bangladeshis living in the UK,” he said in an interview with the Bangladesh Post recently as this year marks the 50th anniversary of Bangabandhu’s homecoming after independence.
This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and the UK.
Bangabandhu upon his release from a Pakistani prison stopped over London before reaching Dhaka on 10 January 1972. He met the world press there, and had a meeting with the then British Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath at 10 Downing Street. He reached Dhaka by a British royal jet.
“That set the tone for what has been a very long and successful relationship largely around development and on other things as well,” the High Commissioner said.
Today, the UK is the third largest export destination of Bangladesh. It is also the second largest investor in Bangladesh. Large UK companies such as Unilever, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank are operating in Bangladesh.
The High Commissioner discussed trade, and investment issues, Covid-time cooperation, future challenges as Bangladesh graduates from LDC, Rohingya crisis and the upcoming general elections during the interview.
It’s a time of change
“The relationship is evolving from a development focus relationship to a broader relationship,” he said, adding that “we had a very successful partnership with Bangladesh in the last half century”.
“But it’s a time of change,” he said as Bangladesh is set to graduate from the LDC in 2026.
“I think in a way our partnership will be different. We will be focusing on a broader range of issues. I am expecting more about trade and investment, possibly more on security and defence. We have a lot going on already, but definitely its (post-graduation relations) going to be more,” he said.
But LDC graduation presents some challenges. “It’s a milestone, not a finishing line,” he said.
“It’s huge achievement to graduate. What countries need to do to continue to thrive after graduation is to make their economies more competitive and for that what is needed is private capital. At this moment Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a very small part of the (Bangladesh) economy. It's about 1 percent of the GDP. What is needed is an economy which is more open to foreign direct investment and private capital coming in to fund the next stage of investment of economic growth,” the High Commissioner said.
Convert interest into investments
And to make that happen, he said, the key is to have a strong institutional and governance mechanism on which the international investors both private and public will have confidence.
“They (investors) can go anywhere – Vietnam, Thailand, India. They also want to come to Bangladesh. A lot of people are interested in Bangladesh. The key to converting the interest into investments is institutional quality --government institutional capacity, rule of law, intellectual property protection rights, companies knowing the level playing field, and international investment would be treated as the same as the domestic investments to grow and thrive.”
He appreciated the investment road show organised by the Bangladesh government in London in November and said it’s the right place for making the pitch.
“We have a very solid foundation. Some of the biggest and respected corporations, and a lot of big international service providers such as PwC, KPMG are here in Bangladesh. They have a very strong UK connection. The UK is already very deeply involved here.
“Other significant UK companies who are very seriously looking into Bangladesh… they see (Bangladesh) as the eighth largest country in terms of population. They see 6 to 8 percent growth before Covid. They see robust economic performance during Covid, so they are very interested.
But they take the decision based on the situation of governance, and the institutional rule of law. “We (High Commission) ensure they take well informed decisions,” he said.
UK’s world-beating offer
“As Bangladesh becomes richer, I am often reminded by the consultant that the number of middle-class consumers in Bangladesh is already larger than the population of Australia.
“Obviously, Covid has been a setback. But it’s remarkable how Bangladesh's economy has been less badly affected than other emerging market economies. That's a remarkable achievement. I think it’s helped by the structure of the Bangladesh economy. When people were locked down, they still needed to buy garments. So, in some ways Bangladesh economy was less hit than economies dependent more, for example, on tourism.
“We see that it is really an exciting opportunity. We produce high value goods, high value services. We hope to see a more balanced relationship, in particular the Bangladesh market opening up for British education services, health services and financial services where we really have a ‘world beating’ offer for the increasingly prosperous Bangladesh market.”
We agree on most things
The High Commissioner is also happy with the diplomatic relations.
“We have a good relationship. The Prime Minister (Sheikh Hasina) had a good meeting with the PM Boris Johnson when she was there at the Glasgow climate summit. We have frequent discussions. We have strategic dialogue led by foreign secretaries.
“I don’t pretend we agree on everything. We agree on most things. When we have disagreements, we talk about them politely and privately. We have a very functioning and positive relationship.”
Interest in Indo-Pacific region
He said the UK also takes interest in the Indo-Pacific region.
“..….we are increasingly interested if you look at the world in 2022, for the next decade or two economic growth and dynamism is really here in the Indo-Pacific region. We made a decision that we will put more diplomatic, security, trade, economic effort in the Indo-pacific region including Bangladesh and that’s what we are doing and we have good partners in the government.”
On the Rohingya crisis, he said, it’s a huge problem created in Myanmar and the solution lies in Myanmar.
“We agree with the government of Bangladesh that their return should be safe and dignified,” he said, adding that the UK would “continue to put pressure on the government of Myanmar as far as we can.”
“We hugely admire what the government has done. I don’t think there is any alternative to continue to accommodate Rohingyas for the short and medium term,” he said.
On the general elections, he said: “Elections are the foundation for any democracy. Elections are the founding principle on which rule of law and governance are built. The next election is very important as it will be a signal to the world about stability, and security of investment and governance in Bangladesh”.
He said the 1972 Constitution that Bangabandhu has drawn up is a really good document in terms of human rights, democracy, media freedom, secularism, and all the other things which are good basis for Bangladesh, a Bangladesh to thrive as a middle income country.
“I think the eyes of the world will be very closely focused on the next elections,” he said. “I don’t think it's for the outside world to mediate,” he said when asked whether they would mediate any talks between political parties.
He, however, said Bangladesh has “ample capacity to deliver a very good election”.
“Politicians should ask themselves what is planned to deliver the (1972) constitutional values that underpinned Bangladesh.”