Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the Saudi Raj

When Bangladesh became a free country, most Islamic nations held off recognition of Bangladesh. Even after Pakistan established diplomatic relations with Bangladesh many countries like Libya and Saudi Arabia did not extend recognition to Bangladesh.  I have just returned from a trip to Bangladesh where I picked up a copy of “Mujibeyr Rokto Lal” by M.R. Akhtar Mukul (3rd Ed Sep 1992). He accompanied Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman as a part of his entourage (in his official capacity as the Director  General of Bangladesh Betar) to the Non-Aligned Nations conference in Algiers in late 1973. Mr. Mukul writes about a brief meeting between BB SMR and Saudi monarch King Faisal. According to Mr. Mukul, this meeting had been engineered by the ceaseless efforts of Barrister Amirul Islam.

Quote from Mr. Mukul’s book (pp 39-41): [I have translated verbatim from the Bangla so the English rendition may sound a bit  awkward]. … … … … “The introduction was prefaced by a formal hug and kisses. Next the two leaders sat next to each other on a
sofa. King Faisal’s interpreter sat on a nearby chair. On the sofa facing them sat representatives of the two countries. After  exchanging pleasantries about each other’s health, the conversation proceeded thus: Faisal: Your Excellency, I have heard that Bangladesh is actually expecting some assistance from us. But the question is, what kind of assistance are you looking for? Of course we have some pre-conditions for providing any form of assistance. Mujib: Your Excellency, please forgive me for my brashness. I am the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. But I don’t think Bangladesh is begging for alms from you. Faisal: Then what is it that you are expecting to receive from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia? Mujib: The pious Muslims of Bangladesh wish to claim their right to worship at the site of the Holy Kaaba. Your Excellency, you tell me if there can be any preconditions to that? You are great and the Bengali Muslims hold you in high esteem. You are the custodian of the Holy Kaaba. Muslims from all over the world have a right to worship there. Can there be any conditions for exercising that right? Your Excellency we are looking  forward to brotherly relations with you on an equal basis.

Faisal: But this not a political discussion. Your Excellency, please tell me what is it that   you want from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Mujib: Your Excellency, you are aware that after Indonesia, Bangladesh is the country with the second highest Muslim population. I wish to learn why Saudi Arabia has not recognized the independent and sovereign nation of Bangladesh to this day. Faisal: I do not have to answer to anybody expect the Most Merciful Allah. But since you are a Muslim, I can tell you that in order to receive Saudi recognition, the name of Bangladesh has to be changed to the “Islamic Republic of Bangladesh”. Mujib: This condition cannot be applied to Bangladesh. Whereas the overwhelming majority of the population of Bangladesh is Muslim, we also have over 10 million non-Muslims. All participated together in our fight for freedom or suffered its consequences. Besides Almighty Allah is not only for the Muslims but He is the creator of the universe.

Your Excellency, please forgive me, but your country is not named the “Islamic Republic of Saudi Arabia”. This great country is named after one of the greatest geniuses and politicians of the Arab world the late King Ibn Saud as the “Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. None of us objected to this name.

Faisal: Your Excellency, besides this we have another condition which is the release of all Pakistani POWs. Mujib: Your  Excellency, this is a bilateral matter between Bangladesh and Pakistan. There are many other unresolved issues between the two countries. Among these are the issues of the return of several hundred thousands of Pakistani citizens and the proper distribution of assets to Bangladesh. These matters may take some time to be settled. That’s why the matter of unconditional release of Pakistan POWs cannot be dealt with independently. Why is Saudi Arabia so concerned about this?

Faisal: Your Excellency please be informed that Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are practically the one and the same. Pakistan is our closest friend. Then your Excellency, there is nothing else to discuss between us. But please think over our two conditions. One is the declaration of an Islamic republic and the other is the unconditional release of all Pakistani prisoners of war.

Mujib: Your Excellency, I would appreciate if you explain one thing to me.

Faisal: Your Excellency, please tell me what it is.

Mujib: Due to the non-recognition of Bangladesh by Saudi Arabia for almost two years, the pious Muslims of Bangladesh are not able to perform the Hajj. Has your Excellency given thought to this? Is it fair to create such a barrier? Muslims from all over the world have a right to worship at the Holy Kaaba. Then why has this barrier been created? Why do thousands of faithful Bengali Muslims have to travel on Indian passports to perform Hajj?

The meeting abruptly ended at this point but Mujib managed to utter one of the favorite quotes of his one-time mentor Maulana Bhashani – “La Kum Din Ukum Wal Ya Din (For you your religion, for me my religion)” before parting. … … … …  Things have  changed a lot in the last 22 years. Although Bangladeshi Muslims are treated as second-class Muslims (right next to Muslims from the rest of the subcontinent) in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh is still considered to be one of the most favored nations by Saudi  Arabia. This is evident from the fact that we are the largest recipient of Saudi aid. There are anywhere from 400,000 to 750,000 Bangladeshis working in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh and Jeddah serve as a transfer point for Bangladeshi garment exports. Many facilities (landing rights, parking fees, etc.) are extended to Bangladeshi passenger and cargo flights at little or no cost. In spite of the above, I find it difficult to accept the fact that Saudi Arabia took over 3 and a half years to recognize Bangladesh.

Author : Wasif Sattar

The essay was originally published in News from Bangladesh on19th October, 1998

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