COLOMBO: Sri Lanka is reorienting its diplomacy to prioritize the Middle East, the country’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, after a parliamentary review of diplomatic relations.
Sri Lankan’s parliamentary committee on international relations convened last week to discuss policies related to Middle Eastern countries and ruled that they need to be strengthened.
Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told Arab News that new efforts will seek to create more opportunities for Middle Eastern countries to “make use of Sri Lanka’s location and foreign policy” to trade with the wider region.
“There is so much for everybody to gain in the world, and Sri Lanka being the gateway to South Asia, it would be an ideal location for anyone to put their money in and invest,” he said.
“The Middle Eastern world is very important for Sri Lanka and is a priority in the Sri Lankan foreign policy.”
Increasing engagements with the Middle East will immediately focus on enabling on people-to-people relations, while in the longer term will aim at arrangements facilitating sustainable commerce ties.
“In the short term, we want more people-to-people connectivity, more direct flights, more employment opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East, more tourists from the Middle East,” Sabry said.
“In the medium term, we are looking at a comprehensive partnership, a number of free trade agreements, an investment protection agreement, prisoner transfer agreement, avoidance of double taxation agreement — so a framework to do long-term business.”
The key countries for Sri Lanka are members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — a region that is already a preferred destination for Sri Lankan expats, as more than 1 million of them are employed there.
Expat workers are a main source of foreign exchange for the country, which since last year has been gripped by its worst financial crisis. In 2022, remittances amounted to $3.8 billion and this year are expected to be even higher as they have reached $2.8 billion between January and June.
“About 80 to 85 percent of the temporary migrant workers who are currently employed are employed in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. And there are a number of people who are working still in Jordan, as well as in Lebanon,” Sabry said.
“These countries play a very pivotal role in sustaining Sri Lanka’s economy … These Sri Lankan migrant workers consistently remit their funds to Sri Lanka, which keeps the Sri Lankan economy going.”