It was sweet serendipity for newly installed Swedish Ambassador Harald Fries in meeting his Filipino wife while also entering the diplomatic community.
Two months after the Swedish Embassy reopened its doors to the public in the Philippines, after being closed for eight years, Fries sat down with the BusinessMirror to discuss his life as a diplomat.
According to Fries, prior to being appointed ambassador, he has already been staying in the Philippines on holidays every year since 1985 to spend time with his wife and her family.
“The first time I visited, it was fantastic. I was deeply in love with this Filipina, and it was extra interesting for me to visit her family,” Fries said.
He added, “For more than 30 years, I have been coming back and forth here typically for Christmas and New Year celebrations and other family reunions, so now we are extremely happy to be back here.”
Learning about the Philippines
Before meeting the love of his life, Fries admitted having little knowledge of the Philippines. He also shared reading a book at that time to equip himself of an understanding of the Filipino culture.
“I remember reading about this concept of utang na loob. I think that is a concept that is quite fundamental to the Philippine culture. In Sweden, of course, if someone is doing a favor for you, you would like to return it, but it is not as deep as here,” Fries said.
According to Fries, there are some risks to the old Filipino concept but he sees more of its positive side being able to bridge families and relationships.
“If you are given a favor, you are so much more attached to that person, and you are expected to be attached and return that favor if needed at some point. But I see it has mostly the positive side of it. Families get close. Relatives and friends get closer,” he said.
Fries said it is the idea of constant learning and meeting new cultures and people that drove him to try his luck in foreign service.
Although admittedly, Fries said he has not yet fully adapted to the country’s warm weather; he sees change as part of his regular routine.
“You get to work with global challenges, peace, climate change and trade. There are so many important areas and sectors in society and in our lives. My interest is not focused in one area so this career allows me do that. In one position, you deal maybe with trade policies and in other you work to help the poorest people to have a better life. It is a broad spectrum of matters that I deal with,” Fries said.
His past works
Fries has already worked before in the Swedish Embassy in Manila from 1991 to 1995. The embassy closed its doors in the country in 2008.
He was then reassigned in Geneva, where he dealt with trade-policy concerns; and in New York, where he was part of the Swedish United Nations mission delegation.
“It was probably the most important place for a diplomat. The United Nations headquarters is the center of international diplomacy, so every day to meet and discuss with colleagues from all around the world is very rewarding. I enjoyed it.;” he said.
Fries added that he gets the satisfaction from being able to contribute his little piece of the world for betterment.
“You really have this opportunity if to deal with trade-policy development, corporations, or peace and security. You are part of a machinery that is working toward goals that you find very important and worthwhile. The objective is to do your little piece of improvement for the world,” Fries said.
Work for Fries and his staff at the embassy will not be a walk in the park as they strive to improve trade relations and investments between the two countries.
In November 2016 a large business delegation from Sweden came to the Philippines bringing potential investments to the country’s infrastructure and information-technology industry.
However, Fries said there is still much to do in terms of introducing Sweden to the Philippines.
“Not only actual trade, but also we want to promote the image of Sweden as a modern and innovative country. Many Filipinos generally do not have much knowledge about Sweden, so we would not only like them to get to know Sweden better, but also to give them the true image of Sweden as a sort of modern country with a lot of strength in creative industries, like music, design and food,” he said.
Fries said he will also follow up on Business Sweden, the primary organization responsible for sending the delegation to the Philippines, on what concerns Swedish businessmen and investors have.
“Regarding red tape and corruption, companies take note of the importance of the government agencies here attached to making doing business easier for foreign companies. It sounds like improvements are on the way,” Fries said.
Fries also said that with the Philippine economy improving and direct flights from Sweden to nearby Asian countries existing, tourism arrivals could also see some boost in both ways.
“Swedes look for the warmth and generosity of the Filipino people. They have gotten used to traveling to Thailand, and now, I think, they want to see something new. I have heard that Filipinos, on the other hand, talk about seeing the Northern Lights. It costs a lot of money but the more this country develops in terms of income, the more people can afford to visit Europe and Sweden,” he said.
Image credits: Jimbo Albano