By HUSNIYE GUNGOR
The relations between Turkey and Bangladesh, a country wedged between South and Southeast Asia that was recently approved by the UN to graduate from least-developed to developing country status, hinges on trade, according to Mohammad Monirul Islam, the Bangladeshi Consul General in Istanbul. “Bangladesh has always giving the highest importance to improving, strengthening, expanding and diversifying the trade relation between the two countries,” Islam says.
Total bilateral trade volume is rather low, hovering around USD 1bn. In 2019, it increased to USD 935.8m from USD 857.27m in 2018 and saw the 2018 levels again in 2020, the year of the pandemic, according to TurkStat and Turkish Foreign Ministry data.
The figures may be small but the potential of the two countries to increase trade is huge, according to Islam. “But for this to happen, we have to diversify our trade basket, which is unfortunately very limited,” he says. Since the two countries have already set a target to double bilateral trade as a first step, diversification should be at the top of the agenda, the consul general stresses.
“On his visit to Turkey in September, Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen had the privilege to call on the honorable president Erdogan, who himself has always emphasized increasing trade between the two countries,” Islam says. “The president himself said we must increase trade to more than USD 2bn as soon as possible.”
In February this year, the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) Turkish – Bangladesh Business Council and the Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce of Industries (FBCCI) made an agreement to encourage the private sectors of both countries to interact and exchange views and conduct visits, if possible, so that trade can be increased. “We have seen that the countries are committed and determined to take trade to the next level,” Islam notes.
After Turkey passed the chairmanship of the Developing 8 – an organization representing 60% of the world’s Muslim population – to Bangladesh, the country hosted the D-8 summit virtually on April 8. “We have various plans and a vision to make the D-8 more vibrant, more fruitful and more productive and to increase business and economic cooperation, especially for trade and investment,” Islam says. Both sides have emphasized the Preferential Trade Agreement that needs to be fully operational between the two countries. They’ve also discussed the USD 5bn trade target among D -8 countries.
“We should give more importance to trade within the organization,” Islam says, “especially under COVID-19 conditions, where every country is facing challenges. So, every country is now focusing on how it can cooperate with each other to develop sustainable economic cooperation.”
A LIMITED TRADE BASKET
With Bangladesh being the world’s second largest producer of readymade garments after China, this product group not surprisingly dominates its export basket to Turkey, representing 80% of exports. Other commodities Turkey imports from Bangladesh are jute yarns, twine, jute manufacturers knitwear, woven garments, leather and ceramics.
Looking at other areas to diversify bilateral trade, Islam underlines Bangladesh’s expertise in pharmaceuticals. Local companies meet 97% of Bangladesh’s domestic demand. “We are now exporting medicine to more than 120 countries, including Europe and the U.S., which have strict standardization and certification demands,” he states. “Turkey can also explore the Bangladesh market for the medicines it imports.”
Another way to improve trade could be ceramic items, especially bone china, which Bangladesh is famous for globally. “In Turkey, ceramics are mainly made from porcelain. It can also explore bone china,” he says. He also mentions tropical fruits like mango, which the country already exports to Switzerland and the UK.
‘NEW VISION’ IN INFRASTRUCTURE
Turkey mainly sells textile chemicals, machines and their components to Bangladesh because of the huge demand in the country. Iron and steel construction materials and generators are other main items of trade between the two countries. “Turkey can also export agricultural machinery which they are very good at. Selling health and medical related equipment to a country with 165 million people would be another area that should be considered,” Islam says. Since olive oil is a very healthy product and Bangladeshi people have become more and more conscious about their health as more people enter the middle-income group, Turkey can also explore the market in these products, he adds.
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina presided over much of the infrastructure development programs over the last 15 years. Her strong leadership in the construction of the Padma Bridge Project with internal resources (and without any external support) established a “new vision” for future investments in infrastructure development in the country. Recently, the prime minister established the multi-billion dollar Bangladesh Infrastructure Investment Fund to maintain the growth momentum as the economy is set to grow faster in the coming years and become an economic hub in the region.With this in mind, Islam says that Turkey can sell more construction material to the country, where many mega projects are in the works. “Turkish companies in construction materials are reaching out to us at the consulate as well as contacting Bangladesh directly about how to collaborate in this sector. We have seen a lot of interest lately,” he adds.
The Turkish Ministry of Health and Turkish Medicines and Medical Devices Agency visited Bangladesh before the pandemic, to meet their counterparts, according to Islam. “The two institutions are exploring how they can bring medicine from Bangladesh to Turkey.” Tourism, especially medical tourism, could be a good opportunity for Turkey to convince the people of Bangladesh to explore the market. “Bangladesh has a growing number of affluent people that need to go outside for treatment. So why not Turkey?”
KOC TO LEAD FDI IN THE COUNTRY
Looking at Foreign Direct Investment, the number of Turkish companies that have investments in Bangladesh is not even 10. Like almost all global brands, including H&M, Gap, Zara, Marks and Spencer, Turkish brands like LC Waikiki, DeFacto and Koton also produce in Bangladesh. There are also some Turkish companies like Shirt by Shirt that produce in the country and directly export from there, benefitting from customs free trade with Europe.
Apart from textile industry, Arcelik’s subsidiary Ardutch B.V. acquired Netherlands based Retail Holdings Bhold B.V, which had a 57% share in Singer Bangladesh Limited, an appliance manufacturer with the nation’s largest retail network, for USD 75m in 2019. More recently, another Koc Group company, Aygaz, bought a 50% share of United LPG Ltd. for USD 605,000 in January.
Islam, who has been Consul General in Istanbul for four years, worked on the Arcelik and Aygaz investments back in 2018. Islam thinks that many other companies will follow these Koc companies and will be encouraged to enter the Bangladeshi market. The interest of Turkish investors has been increasing for the last two to three years, he says from his experience.
There are many reasons for Turks to explore Bangladesh, Islam adds. Bangladesh will officially become a developing country in 2026 (instead of 2024, a delay of two years due to the impacts of the pandemic on the economy) and likely to to join the 25 largest economies worldwide by 2030, he notes. The country managed a 5.2% growth even during the pandemic, down from its usual 8% but remarkable considering the pandemic conditions. Bangladesh’s per capita income (USD 2,064 for 2019-2020), is better than its neighboring countries in South Asia.
READY TO OFFER SPECIALIZED ECONOMIC ZONES
Between South and Southeast Asia, very close to two emerging economies like India and China, the country has access to a huge regional market but with a population of 165 million, Bangladesh itself is also a huge market with growing purchasing capacity. Either tax-related or non-tax-related, financial and non-financial, there are lots of government incentives, Islam states. “The country is building 100 Specialized Economic Zones. Different countries like India, South Korea and Japan have their own specialized economic zones. So, we are ready to offer the Turkish investor a zone.”
Islam expects many official and top-level visits (including President Erdogan) to take place as soon as the pandemic conditions improve. There will be another Joint Economic Commission when the pandemic is over. A Free Trade Agreement is on the table, and the two countries are also talking about how to create a Professional Trade Agreement (PTA). As Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said, Bangladesh is also a key partner in Turkey’s ASEAN initiative.
Along with conducting relationships with business NGOs, the consulate also has the goal of establishing personal contact directly with companies, like the latest visit he made to Porland CEO on bone china porcelain and Zorlu Group on how to cooperate in the renewable energy sector, especially wind.
Under this initiative, Islam is hopeful that the relationship between the two countries will flourish, not only in the economy, but also in culture and education, which will bring new opportunities. “All the ingredients are there, all the commitment is there, all the intention is there, so everything is now ready,” he says, “Now we can be hopeful that, inshallah, something big will happen soon in the economy between the two countries.
“FRIENDSHIP TO ALL, MALICE TOWARD NONE”
Bangladesh recently celebrated the 50th year of its independence – its golden jubilee together with the birth centenary of its ‘Father of the Nation’ Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. The country has achieved a great deal of success with the vision of its leader, according to Mohammad Monirul Islam, The People’s Republic of Bangladesh Consul General in Istanbul. “The government has adopted many policies to empower women in different sectors like politics and society, making the country a role model,” he says.
“The Father of the Nation also had a vision of Golden Bangla, which means to combat poverty and transform the country into a poverty free, hunger free, prosperous and developed nation. So, we are working to realize his dream.” In 1971, when the country gained independence, the poverty rate was around 80%; today, it has been reduced to 21% while extreme poverty is below 10%, meaning millions of people have ben lifted out of poverty. The human development index, literacy and life expectancy rates have also increased. Many service sectors were digitalized and more than 120 million people now have mobile access, Islam adds.
EDUCATION CREATES A POTENTIAL
As there 600 Bangladeshi students in Turkey, 200 in Istanbul, Islam sees huge potential in education. More students can come from Bangladesh to study and maybe scholarships can be offered for biology students, he says. He believes that young people should know each other’s culture more. “Exchange of students, teachers and researchers, visits made to research institutes of both countries, sharing of academic and scientific journals should be considered,” he said adding that the Bangla language school in Istanbul University will start soon as a first step in collaboration in education.
“ISTANBUL REMINDS ME OF DHAKKA WITH ITS VIBRANCE”
“Istanbul has its own attraction. Everything, whatever you need, is there in Istanbul. That’s why Istanbul is a city of choice for people that come to Turkey. I feel that there is no vibrant city like Istanbul. In that respect, my favorite spot in the city is Taksim Square, because you will feel the rhythm of the people, especially young people and foreigners. Istanbul reminds me off Dhakka, that’s why I feel at home since the very first moment I came. I also like to spend long hours at the Bosphorus, and go to Maltepe Park for cycling with my family. I do travel a lot around Turkey during my holidays to discover more about this country. My favorite dish is kebap.”