Visit of Swedish Princess to Bangladesh: What Does It Mean for Bilateral Cooperation?

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Sweden and Bangladesh have a long-standing relationship that goes beyond 1971. Commercial ties date back over a century, with Swedish companies operating in the East Bengal market from Kolkata. Sweden was among the few countries that marked 50 years of diplomatic ties with Bangladesh while the nation celebrated its Golden Jubilee of independence. It recognized Bangladesh on February 4, 1972. Development cooperation has been the major highlight of their bilateral relations as offered critical humanitarian aid to Bangladesh immediately after the war and continue to champion human security. But as both countries have evolved so has the nature of their relationship. The economic cooperation between both nations is robust, with bilateral trade volume reaching almost $1 billion in 2023. The recent visit by Swedish Princess Victoria further signifies a deepening partnership focused on collaborative efforts in development, economics, and human security for a sustainable future. This visit highlights the multifaceted, dynamic, and ever-growing partnership between the two nations.

Frequent High-level Visits Between Bangladesh and Sweden

High-level visits and diplomatic exchanges are cornerstones of strong bilateral relations. This is certainly true for Bangladesh and Sweden, where frequent visits and interactions have fostered strong partnerships between the two countries. The visit of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to Sweden in 2017 was the first-ever bilateral official visit from either side by a head of government, heralding a new chapter in their bilateral relations. During the visit, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed for Foreign Office Consultations (FOC) to facilitate diplomatic communication and engagement. Both parties pledged to collaborate under the Global Deal framework to ensure fair employment and enhance productivity. Recognizing the potential for growth in free trade, they agreed on the importance of simplified regulations for accessing products, technology, and services. Both countries also showed their strong commitment to the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, the Global Compact on Migration, and the promotion of world peace through working collaboratively in multilateral forums. This visit set the foundation for a truly multifaceted and interdependent relationship between Bangladesh and Sweden.

In March 2021, Sweden’s Minister for International Development Cooperation, Per Olsson Fridh, visited Bangladesh and met with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. During the meeting, he reaffirmed Sweden’s ongoing commitment to supporting Bangladesh in its efforts to combat poverty and promote gender equality. Subsequently, former Foreign Minister Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen visited Sweden for a three-day visit in June 2022 to attend the Stockholm+50 international environmental meeting. During his visit, he held discussions with Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde on enhancing and broadening cooperation between Bangladesh and Sweden to address climate change.

In October 2023, Swedish State Secretary for International Development Cooperation and International Trade Diana Janse came to Bangladesh on a two-day state visit. During her visit, she expressed a strong interest in bolstering the partnership between the two countries, particularly by aligning development with trade, sustainability, and green initiatives. Along with bilateral issues, both sides exchanged views on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and developments in the Indo-Pacific region, indicating the widening scope of cooperation between Bangladesh and Sweden. Her visit just before the visit of the Crown Princess, highlights the increasing bilateral engagements between the two countries. The return of the Crown Princess to Bangladesh after almost two decades symbolizes the deepening of the bilateral partnership. With a special focus on development cooperation, this visit set the tone for expanding the basket of cooperation between the two countries.

Recent Visit of Swedish Princess to Bangladesh

Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden visited Bangladesh from March 18 to 21 in her capacity as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This marked her first official mission since being appointed as a UNDP goodwill ambassador in October 2023. Accompanied by Swedish Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Johan Forssell, as well as UNDP Assistant Secretary General Ulrika Modéer, her visit aimed to gain insights into Bangladesh’s development journey. The focus was on examining progress and challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly in areas such as climate action, gender equality, green and digital transitions, and the role of the business sector.

During her visit, Princess Victoria participated in Bangladesh’s Green Transition Dialogue and joined a collaborative interactive event focusing on the country’s digital transformation. She conducted several field visits, including to Rohingya camps in Bhasan Char and Cox’s Bazar. Additionally, she visited Hatiya Island, an area vulnerable to climate change, to better understand the challenges faced by the local community. The Swedish Princess also inaugurated a Smart Service Point in Khulna, highlighting a commitment to digital inclusion and ensuring equitable access to public services. Ms. Ulrika Modéer expressed satisfaction with Bangladesh’s achievements in the development sector, stating, “What Bangladesh is doing is truly remarkable in its development journey.”

The visit of the Crown Princess presents a distinctive opportunity to shed light on Bangladesh’s development progress and enhance partnerships for a resilient and inclusive future. It is anticipated that this high-level visit will further strengthen the future ties between Bangladesh and Sweden.

Impacts on Bilateral Cooperation

The visit of Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden to Bangladesh as UNDP Goodwill Ambassador reflects a renewed commitment to strengthening bilateral ties and multilateral cooperation. It was the culmination of previous visits where both countries expressed their satisfaction and pledged to further expand their cooperation in diverse sectors. Now, it is time for both countries to capitalize on this positive momentum and realize the full potential of this partnership.

The upward trend in bilateral trade and investment is likely to continue as both Bangladesh and Sweden have recognized each other as vital trading partners. Economic cooperation between the two nations is already robust, with trade volumes reaching over $1 billion in Fiscal Year 2022-2023. Bangladesh’s exports to Sweden reached $965.29 million, whereas imports from Sweden totaled $60.21 million in 2023. These figures indicate the growing economic interdependence between the two countries.

Figure 1: Bangladesh-Sweden Bilateral Trade Volume

There exists a huge potential to deepen the economic cooperation between Bangladesh and Sweden. Sweden has a good reputation for sustainability and innovation which helps in promoting Swedish industries in Bangladesh, particularly in energy, environment, paper pulp, and leather products. The country ranks 2nd in the Global Innovation Index. Beyond traditional exports like garments, there is room for collaboration in sectors like ICT and pharmaceuticals. Collaboration between Sweden and Bangladesh in energy-efficient, low-emission green technologies for the RMG sector can enhance sustainable textile manufacturing locally, boosting Bangladesh’s global competitiveness. With 157 leed certified green garment factories, Bangladesh is home to the highest number of green garment factories in the world. Swedish companies can also tap into opportunities in Bangladesh’s growing digital sector, driven by e-commerce, e-governance, digitalization, and online labor. Bangladesh has the largest supplier of online labor in the world with a 16% share of the global online workforce forces while youth constitute a third of the Bangladeshi population. With a growing middle class and rapid economic expansion, Bangladesh presents a market of 170 million consumers to Sweden. Nonetheless, Stockholm can advocate for the European Union (EU) to extend GSP facilities to Bangladesh beyond its graduation as a developing country in 2026.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from Sweden is also expected to rise further due to enhanced bilateral partnerships and a favorable business environment in Bangladesh. Over 50 Swedish companies are already operating in Bangladesh which includes H&M, Bikroy.com Limited, and Milvik Bangladesh Limited. From 2014 to 2018, Sweden’s FDI inflow to Bangladesh experienced a notable increase, suggesting a shift in the economic landscape. FDI grew from $11.35 million in 2014 to a peak of $21.63 million in 2018. Contributing factors to this growth may include economic stability, significant infrastructure development, and government incentives.

Figure 2: FDI Inflow from Sweden to Bangladesh

The Swedish Ambassador to Bangladesh, Alexandra Berg von Linde, emphasized Sweden’s commitment to promoting sustainable business in Bangladesh. Swedish companies possess advanced skills, goods, and services crucial for realizing the “Vision 2041” of Bangladesh. Moreover, Sweden’s focus on ICT sector development complements Bangladesh’s goal of becoming a Smart Bangladesh by 2041, facilitating mutual collaboration in bridging the digital divide.

The recent visit also indicates further strengthening of the long-standing development partnership between the two countries. The current development strategy of Sweden spanning from 2021 to 2025 with a total budget of SEK 1.75 billion focuses mainly on four key areas which encompass inclusive economic development; democracy, human rights, rule of law, and gender equality; health; and climate and environment. Underlining Sweden’s commitment to alleviating poverty in Bangladesh, Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade of Sweden, Joah Forsell, highlighted the vast potential of private funds in this endeavor, stating, “There is an enormous amount of private money available and if we could just channel a percentage of that into fighting poverty that would be an enormous platform.” The Government of Sweden is also supporting Bangladesh’s efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by allocating $8.5 million to WHO Bangladesh through the “Strengthening the Health System in Bangladesh” project, aimed at enhancing and expanding inclusive healthcare facilities.

The partnership between Sweden and Bangladesh on climate change issues holds great significance. Given Bangladesh’s vulnerability to rising sea levels and extreme weather events as a low-lying coastal country, collaboration with Sweden, renowned for its expertise in sustainable development and renewable energy, is crucial. Sweden, ranking 2nd in the SDG Index with 58% of its energy sourced from renewable sources, offers valuable knowledge and experience in this field. Together, they can work towards mitigating the adverse effects of climate change and enhancing resilience in vulnerable communities. With Crown Princess Victoria gaining firsthand insight into Bangladesh’s development trajectory as a UNDP Goodwill Ambassador, there is an expectation that development cooperation in these crucial sectors will deepen. This reflects shared priorities and a commitment to addressing global challenges through collaborative efforts.

Sweden remains actively involved and supports endeavors to provide aid to both Rohingyas and the host communities in Bangladesh. This visit has further reinforced the collective call for the repatriation of Rohingyas to Myanmar. As the Crown Princess visited the Rohingya refugee camps and observed the situation, further diplomatic and financial assistance is expected.

Alongside trade and development cooperation, people-to-people connections are expected to grow stronger. Every year, a good number of Bangladeshi students seek admission to Swedish universities for postgraduate studies. While some choose to remain in Sweden and work for Swedish companies, the majority return to Bangladesh equipped with a high-quality education and insights into Swedish society and business norms. These alumni serve as a link between the two countries and work as cultural ambassadors. In addition, Swedish development assistance aimed at improving living conditions and public facilities in Bangladesh has fostered a positive perception of Sweden among Bangladeshi people. This positive image will play a crucial role in further strengthening bilateral relations between the two nations.

In conclusion, the visit of the Swedish Princess marks a significant milestone in strengthening bilateral ties between Sweden and Bangladesh. Historically rooted in development cooperation, this visit signifies a broader expansion of cooperation into other domains. Through engagements across various sectors, including trade, human security, and people-to-people connections, both countries are poised to deepen their partnership and address shared challenges. As the relationship evolves beyond traditional boundaries, the visit of the Swedish Princess serves as a catalyst for enhanced collaboration and mutual understanding, fostering a resilient and sustainable future for Bangladesh and Sweden.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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