Mr. Mohammad Sarwar Mahmood is the current Ambassador of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh to the Kingdom of Spain. He previously served as the Director General at the Ministry of foreign Affairs, Bangladesh from July 2018 to April 2021. Before taking up his immediate past responsibility as the Director General (South Asia), he served as the Director General (Public Diplomacy). Prior to returning to the Ministry, he worked as the Consul General of Bangladesh in Hong Kong from April 2013 to June 2018. He earlier served in the Permanent Mission of Bangladesh to the United Nations in New York as Counsellor from January 2010 to March 2013. Before joining the Permanent mission, he worked in the South Asia Wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh. He also served in the Administration Wing as well as the Americas and Pacific Wing of the Ministry. He further served in the Bangladesh missions at Brussels and Singapore under various capacities.

This interview was conducted at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh in Madrid by Secretary General of Young European Leadership, Augusto Gonzalez on May 14th, 2023.

Thank you for agreeing to meet me. I wanted to start off by asking how would you describe the current state of diplomatic relations between Bangladesh and Spain? What are some recent highlights or significant developments in the bilateral relationship between our two countries?

Bangladesh and Spain enjoy excellent friendly relations, which have thrived manifold over the years through sustained engagements in areas that transcend trade and commerce. The people of Bangladesh would always cherish the fact that Spain was amongst the first few nations that extended diplomatic recognition to Bangladesh soon after its independence in 1971. The cordial relations demonstrate the shared aspirations of the two peoples, and draw further strength from the collective stakes on emerging global issues with mutuality of interests. The entire gamut of bilateral relations was reviewed at the first bilateral Foreign Office Consultation held in Dhaka on 1 June 2022. Building on the shared commitments reached at the consultation, Bangladesh looks forward to the exchange of higher-level bilateral visits in the near future to infuse greater momentum to the pace of ongoing bilateral cooperation.

In 2022, Spain and Bangladesh celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, which started its journey on 12 May 1972. Honorable President of Spain, His Excellency Mr. Pedro Sánchez congratulated the Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on the occasion through a message. He lauded Bangladesh’s spectacular socioeconomic achievements and appreciated its abiding commitment to multilateralism and global peace. Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina too addressed a greetings message to her Spanish counterpart. Further, His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain and the Honorable President of Bangladesh exchanged congratulatory messages on this grand occasion.

Spain is an important development partner of Bangladesh. TYPSA, a reputed Spanish company, is engaged in preparing the masterplan for several infrastructure projects in Bangladesh, which involves transport modeling at the national level, feasibility studies, structural design and the analysis of potential sources of funding. Spain is also keen on providing assistance in the development of Bangladesh’s railway infrastructure.

I held substantive discussions with some prominent companies of Spain (Indra and TSD) at the International Defence and Security Fair on 17-19 May 2023 in Madrid. The fair is positioned as the most important defense and security event held in Spain. It is also mentionable that Bangladesh procures defense equipment from Spain through this Embassy every year, amounting to €1 million.

In September 2021, we at the Embassy co-hosted a webinar on the Spanish agro-innovation known as Almería model, where it was observed that the effective application of the model could augment agricultural yields in Bangladesh. Almeria offers a complete and innovative system of sustainable agricultural farming based on cutting-edge technology and research and an effective watering system reducing waste and greenhouse gas emission to grow agro-products in a relatively small and dry land. Later, the then Honorable Commerce Minister of Bangladesh Mr. Tipu Munshi, accompanied by me, visited Almeria on 22-26 May 2022 and inspected four leading agro-processing companies operating in the region. We gained access to the knowledge of how Almeria had become one of the most important suppliers of vegetables and fruits for the EU and the USA. Building on the visit, the two sides aimed to work together to emulate the Almeria model of agro-business in Bangladesh, farm mechanization, production and export of high value crops, crop diversification and intensification, integrated nutrition, natural pest management and commercial-scale distribution chains through cooperative systems. 

Spain hosts arguably the third largest Bangladeshi expatriates’ community in the European Union, over 50,000. Enterprising, hard-working and law-abiding, they are playing a catalytic role in advancing the relations. Many of them are long-term residents—with their families in Spain—having their own businesses. They have adapted well to the local way of life. Spain too has embraced them with all its warmth. Through their economic activities, the Bangladeshi expatriates continue to make a very positive contribution to the Spanish economy and infuse an additional element of diversity into the communities they live in. The reality on the ground reveals that there is much more that unites the two peoples.

We at the Embassy play an essential role in bringing Bangladesh closer to Spain by demonstrating the complementarities and also showcasing each other’s cultural attachments. In this regard, we engage and reach out to a wide network of civil society organizations, think tanks, public representatives, press and media houses and reputed universities, and hold seminars, symposiums and meetings.

We actively pursue Cultural Diplomacy by organizing art displays, language workshops, traditional Bengali cultural events, and youth programmes in various cities in Spain. Through the exchange of ideas, information, art and other elements of culture, we seek to foster greater mutual understanding between Spain and Bangladesh. The purpose is to develop an acceptance/appreciation of Bangladesh’s ideals and institutions in an effort to build broad Spanish support for Bangladesh.

I held a meeting with the then Minister for Culture and Sports of Spain, His Excellency Mr. Miquel Octavi Iceta i Llorens on 31 August 2022. I requested the Spanish Minister to expedite the finalization of the drafts of the bilateral agreement on cultural cooperation and the MoU on youth and sports currently pending with the Spanish side. The Minister reiterated that his government remained committed to working closely with Bangladesh. It is expected that the two instruments will be signed soon.

I want to continue with my next questions which are also along these lines. What opportunities do you see for enhancing trade and investment between Bangladesh and Spain? Are there any specific sectors where both countries could benefit from increased collaboration?

Spain is Bangladesh’s 2nd largest export destination in the EU, while Bangladesh is Spain’s 4th largest trade partner in Asia. In FY 2022-23, Bangladesh’s export to Spain was valued at $3.7 billion USD, registering an increase by 15% from the previous year, despite global-scale inflation and recession. Some leading Spanish companies specialized in renewable energy and water management have shown growing interest in investing in Bangladesh. Spanish companies operating in Bangladesh, for the most part, choose to open a purchasing center that manages the acquisition of the final products. The Spanish investment accumulated in Bangladesh is concentrated in the production of cements and ceramic products. In addition, Spain is actively investing in Bangladesh in several other promising sectors, such as textiles, power plants, water supply, cement, leather, ceramics, etc. The proposed agreement between Bangladesh and Spain on the Avoidance of Double Taxation, if and when signed, would result in increased bilateral investments.

Renowned Retail giants Inditex, El Corte Inglés, and Mango are adding value to Bangladesh’s textiles by redefining trends and fashions. Telstar Proyectos is manufacturing insulin through their biotech plant at Square Pharmaceuticals Ltd in Kaliakoir, Gazipur. Azbil Telstar is providing high-tech solutions in engineering, construction and manufacturing processes through its subsidiary in Dhaka. Roca is providing sustainable and quality bathroom solutions. Porcelanosa is focusing on ceramic flooring and wall tile that are unique and cutting edge. Cobra Tedagua is supplying safe drinking water to the citizens of Mirpur, Dhaka. Cementos Molins in partnership with French company Lafarge Cement is manufacturing over 1 million tons of cement every year. TSK is currently providing 950 MW of power through three Power Plants in Ashuganj. Isolux Corsan is generating 885 MW of power through its power plants in Dhaka, Khulna and Sylhet.

Bangladesh—fondly acclaimed as the textile superpower and the world’s dressmaker—is the second largest global exporter of apparels, next only to China. The “Made in Bangladesh” tag speaks of Bangladesh’s growing economic strengths and her increasing presence in the global economic landscape. Bangladesh’s evolution from a producer of affordable clothing to a host of luxury fashion brands is a testament to the country’s commitment to quality. Spanish retail giants Inditex, Mango, H&M, etc. source most of their products from Bangladesh. Besides, the presence of prominent brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein, Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Hugo Boss underscores the nation’s capacity to deliver exceptional craftsmanship. Bangladesh is an integral part of the global luxury fashion ecosystem.

Bangladesh is a country of endless opportunity and prospects. However, what is less known to many amongst the Spanish and the European business community is the fact that Bangladesh has wonderful competitive advantages, untapped treasures and immense potentials in some of the promising sectors that include ship-building, tea, jute, leather, pharmaceuticals, agro-business, frozen sea foods, ceramic, ICT and light engineering. Bangladesh is among the world’s top three producers of rice. It ranks second in global supply of IT freelancers and vegetable production, and third in global fish production. 

Bangladesh has also proposed versatile institutional collaboration between the Port of Barcelona—one of the major international maritime trade hubs of Europe—and the Chattogram, the Mongla and the Payra sea ports. I held a fruitful meeting with the President of the Port of Barcelona Lluis Salvado on 28 September 2023, where the two sides discussed the possibility of signing bilateral MoUs to forge collaboration in matters including establishing direct shipping links between the Port of Barcelona and the sea ports of Bangladesh. The Barcelona Port Authority welcomed the idea of widening bilateral cooperation through the institutional mechanism proposed. Mentionable, the volume of export-containers originating from the Chattogram Port and arriving in the Port of Barcelona registered a growth of 55% in FY 2022-23 compared to the previous year. A direct shipping link, if established, will significantly contribute to the further enhancement of bilateral trade. It will also reduce transportation costs and lead time.

When it comes to other themes, how do Bangladesh and Spain cooperate on regional and international issues? Are there any shared priorities or areas of collaboration in terms of foreign policy?

Bangladesh attaches high importance to its relations with Spain, which have witnessed remarkable growth in recent years in both bilateral and multilateral planes on a wide range of issues such as combating climate change, environmental protection, reciprocal support to each other in elections in various international and multilateral fora, and so on.

Thank you. I would now like to dive a bit deeper into Bangladesh and the EU. How does Bangladesh view its relationship with the European Union? Are there any specific areas where Bangladesh seeks closer cooperation with the EU?

The year 2023 marked the 50th anniversary of EU-Bangladesh diplomatic relations. In this time, the EU has been a trusted development, trade and humanitarian partner to Bangladesh. The relations between the EU and Bangladesh have grown from strength to strength over these five decades to become multidimensional, encapsulating political, trade, development, climate change, connectivity and security concerns.

The Honorable Sheikh Hasina held a fruitful meeting with the President of the European Commission, Ms. Ursula von der Leyen on 25 October 2023 in Brussels during the inauguration of the EU’s Global Gateway Forum. On that day, the negotiation on the “Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA)” between Bangladesh and the EU was launched. As part of the initiative, the EU, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and Bangladesh signed agreements worth €400 million for renewable energy projects to contribute to a sustainable green transition of Bangladesh’s power sector and to the achievement of the country’s climate mitigation targets. Five additional cooperation actions, worth €70 million, supporting education, decent work, green construction, e-governance and the prevention of gender-based violence were also launched.

We hope that this initiative will enable developing countries such as Bangladesh to fight climate change, to address infrastructure gaps, invest in renewable energy, digital innovation, healthcare, education and much more. The Global Gateway is a sign of friendship, of partnership, of trust, of symbiotic interdependence. We invite our European partners and friends, including Spain, to lend their valuable support for investment in Bangladesh in clean and green technologies particularly.

The Global Gateway Forum brings together an assembly of government representatives from the European Union and across the globe, alongside key stakeholders from the private sector, civil society, thought leaders, financial institutions, and international organizations to promote global investment in infrastructure to deliver on the SDGs and sustainable growth and resilience worldwide. Global Gateway is the EU’s positive offer to reduce the worldwide investment gap and boost smart, clean and secure connections in digital, energy and transport sectors, and to strengthen health, education and research systems. The Global Gateway strategy embodies a Team Europe approach that brings together the European Union, EU Member States, and European development finance institutions. It aims to mobilize up to €300 billion in public and private investments from 2021 to 2027, creating essential links rather than dependencies, and closing the global investment gap.

Spain hosted the High-Level Conference of the European Migration Network (EMN) on the theme ‘Shaping the Future of EU Legal Migration’ in Madrid on 16-17 November 2023, where Bangladesh was represented by the then Honorable Minister of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) Mr. Imran Ahmad, accompanied by me. The Conference broadly discussed how legal migration pathways could help solve some of the challenges facing the EU, such as labor deficit in certain sectors and aging demographics. In his intervention at High-level Session 2 on the theme External dimension of labor migration—policies, tools and good practices, the Honorable Minister of EWOE emphasized the need to reduce the excessive cost of migration and break the evil nexus of intermediaries and recruiting agencies. He stressed that the process must be simplified and proposed that employers in the EU should value migrant workers’ specific vocational proficiency and soft skills gained and accumulated through a previous period of practical and occupational experience, a fact commonly termed as the Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). He called upon EU countries to consider signing separate bilateral agreements/MoUs with the sending countries to facilitate the flow of migration through government channels. He also proposed that the EU should come up with a general estimate on the requirements in various thematic sectors, so that the source countries could better train, educate and equip their migrant workforce with the precise skill sets determined by the market dynamics and build on the provisions of the framework agreements done bilaterally. The Honorable Minister of EWOE stated that the European development partners should consider investing in joint schemes for the further development of skills and talents, thereby bridging the digital divide and building the capacity on both ends. The proposals presented by the Honorable Minister were applauded by the conference.

With all that you have mentioned in mind, I think that it is important to keep in mind the advancements that your country has made in the development field. With Bangladesh no longer qualifying for Least Developed Country (LDC) trade status starting in 2026 as per the latest projections, what is Bangladesh doing to maintain its ongoing trade relationship with Spain and other European countries intact? Does Bangladesh hope to use this as an opportunity to enhance trade exchanges between itself and European countries?

Graduating from the LDC category is, in reality, a commendation from the international community for Bangladesh’s achievements in growth and development, which in turn would boost the confidence of global financiers. Countries that have graduated previously have experienced a higher flow of FDI. The improved perception of the country’s market risks is expected to upgrade the country’s international credit rating, which would lead to an increased generation of investible resources.

Although the graduation may not diminish the flow of foreign aid abruptly, the domestic tax collection is expected to increase significantly. For all these potentials to turn into reality, Bangladesh is already in the process of undertaking a set of smart and progressive policy reforms. We are aware that Bangladesh has to overcome a series of hurdles to bear the fruits of potential benefits from graduation. Graduation would lead to waiving a number of preferences and privileges in the export markets, especially in the European and Canadian markets. The EU and the UK have agreed to allow Bangladesh to benefit from the preferential treatment for three years after graduation in 2026. While commitment regarding continued preferential treatment in the Japanese and Canadian markets is yet to come by, it is certain that Bangladesh will continue to benefit from the Duty-Free Quota-Free (DFQF) access to the EU and the UK markets for an extra three years after graduation. In the case of the UK, a new GSP scheme has been granted, called the Developing Countries Trading Scheme (DCTS). While we thank the EU in general and Spain in particular for unilaterally extending the Everything-But-Arms (EBA) trade concessions to Bangladesh till 2029, we continue to persuade Spain and Bangladesh’s other development partners in the EU to extend the transition period from three to six years, until 2032. 

Despite the serious impact of the loss of International Support Measures (ISMs)—principally DFQF and EBA—in its various strategic plans, Bangladesh aims to accommodate the impacts by upgrading industry, improving linkages, enhancing productivity and diversifying production, as well as accessing new markets. Graduation is viewed not as a hurdle to be overcome but as a stage on which to base the next phase of development.

On our part, we have taken extensive measures for diversification of our export commodities. Bangladesh’s jute exports extend far and wide, reaching as many as 135 countries around the globe. The jute industry holds immense promise for generating revenue and driving sustainable development. With an ambitious target of achieving US$ 2 billion in jute and related product exports within the next two to three years, Bangladesh is poised to capitalize on its rich jute heritage and global demand for eco-friendly materials. The leather industry in Bangladesh shows incredible potential, with a steady increase in exports since 2010—a trend that continues to rise. 

Agro-food is increasingly becoming a prominent part of Bangladesh’s export portfolio. The agricultural industry has a high prospect of boosting the country’s external trade. Frozen food accounts for roughly 23% of the country’s total agricultural exports. Bangladesh produces some of the finest tea blends in the world. Elegant design and delicacy, ecological sustainability, health consciousness and hard work have made Bangladeshi teas stand out in taste and flavor, wherever they are taken. The increasing global demand for environmentally friendly products is a huge opportunity for the handicraft sector to rise. Bangladesh earns about US$ 20 million each year from handicraft exports. The Fintech market in Asia-Pacific is estimated to exceed US$ 150 billion by 2025. Bangladesh has significant potential and many untapped opportunities in this sector, with an annual credit of over US$ 7 billion and catering to 35 million people. Bangladesh’s digital industry is thriving with a primary focus on outsourcing Information Technology services. Annual earnings from the IT sector are now over US$ 1.3 billion. We call upon the European business community to visit Bangladesh, explore the avenues hitherto unexplored, and seize the lucrative trade and investment opportunities.

Bangladesh is a country that is particularly susceptible to climate change given the fact that a large part of the country is effectively at or below sea level. As such, any increase in ocean elevation can pose an existential threat to the country. With this in mind, what role can the EU or Spain play in addressing the effects of climate change and sustainable development in Bangladesh? Are there opportunities for cooperation in areas such as renewable energy and environmental conservation?

Bangladesh is one of the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change. Despite its minimal contribution, less than 0.4%, to global greenhouse gas emissions, the country is disproportionately experiencing the adverse impacts of climate change. The adverse effects of climate pose serious threats to the security and economic prosperity of our present and future generations. Urgent, bold and ambitious collective actions are needed to address these threats. It is an everyday lived reality in Bangladesh. But this has not held Bangladesh back from assertively raising its voice for climate justice. Bangladesh is now acclaimed as a global leader in climate advocacy, particularly in cross-disciplinary areas, including mitigation, adaptation, financing and investment. Bangladesh has led by setting examples, creating the first climate prosperity plan in 2021—the “Mujib Climate Prosperity Plan”—which has since inspired other countries to develop their own. The plan focuses on broader measures to promote sustainable development while reducing carbon emissions. 

Bangladesh’s climate policy deck also includes a far-reaching policy tool, the “Delta Plan 2100”, which outlines a set of long-term strategies for water resources management and climate resilience. Bangladesh’s innovative policies and streamlined regulatory frameworks have encouraged investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and sustainable agriculture practices and helped build a climate-smart economy. Mobilization of resources to climate resilience and robust disaster preparedness and risk management have fostered local solutions.

Bangladesh has left its mark on the ongoing climate change narratives and discourse. On both the government and the non-government fora, Bangladesh is at the forefront of thought leadership on climate change. Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina served as the Chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum—a group representing the 48 most vulnerable developing countries—for four years. During her tenure, Bangladesh was instrumental in shifting the global narrative from climate vulnerability to climate resilience and prosperity. Bangladesh’s experience in championing social development can be used to steer large-scale action in climate adaptation. No country is better positioned than Bangladesh to address the nuanced effects of climate change. However, climate change is a global phenomenon. It requires the collective effort of all states, including collaboration between close friends like Spain and Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is committed to protecting and preserving the environment and biodiversity and pursuing a climate-resilient sustainable development path. In line with the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, Bangladesh is developing its national low-carbon emission strategy and mitigation actions through green initiatives including renewable energy. More than six million people are now using solar home systems in Bangladesh. The government is also working for a more sustainable energy mix. Bangladesh targets 40% of clean power generation by 2041. Bangladesh aims to reach 4.1 GW of renewable capacity by 2030, including nearly 2.3 GW of solar capacity.

Let me underline that the developed countries should fulfill their commitments of providing 100 billion dollars with a 50:50 balance between adaptation and mitigation and disseminate clean, green, and advanced technology to the most vulnerable developing countries at affordable costs. Bangladesh demands an urgent operationalization of the Loss and Damage Funds as agreed in COP27, including global sharing of responsibility for climate migrants. Bangladesh calls for a stronger global solidarity in sharing the burden of climate migrants induced by sea-level rise, salinity increase, river erosion, floods, and droughts. There must be synergies amongst various climate funds. The development needs of the climate-vulnerable countries must be duly considered. We need a “common global commitment” for leaving a healthier planet for our future generation. The EU and Spain are our enduring partners in this endeavor.

My final question. Looking ahead, what are your hopes and expectations for the future of Bangladesh-Spain relations? In what ways do you envision the relationship evolving or deepening in the coming years and what do you wish to contribute to the relationship in your time as ambassador?

In the area of trade relations, readymade garment and textile constitute almost 95% of Spanish imports from Bangladesh. However, apart from trade in apparels, there remains ample potential to expand, diversify and enhance cooperation into many new areas for mutual benefit. 

Spain and Bangladesh are currently working together to conclude several bilateral instruments, particularly on youth and sports, avoidance of double taxation, promotion and protection of investments, agriculture, cultural exchange programme, and memorandums of understanding between our Foreign Service Academy and the Spanish Diplomatic School and also between Spanish and Bangladeshi universities on collaboration in education. One of the largest expatriate communities in Europe, the Bangladeshi diaspora in Spain is making significant contributions to the two economies. We hope that people-to-people interactions between our two countries would continue to flourish in the days ahead. 

Bangladesh—with its wide pool of skilled and young workforce and talented professionals in various sectors, such as ICT, engineering and construction, nursing, caregiving and public health, hospitality financial management, marine engineering, shipping, fisheries and agriculture—stands ready to meet the rising labor deficit in Spain and some other countries in Europe. Spain launched regulatory reforms in the law entitled “Rights and Freedoms of Foreigners in Spain and their Social Integration” in 2022, paving the way for foreigners to work legally in Spain. The move aims to bring undocumented workers into the official labor market by easing the process. In this backdrop, Bangladesh proposed an MoU with Spain, whereby seasonal agricultural workforce from Bangladesh could be employed. Bangladesh also proposed another MoU with Spain for education, training and recruitment of maritime professionals.

As Bangladesh continues its march towards becoming a full-fledged developed nation by 2041, we do count on the support and understanding of our close friend and partner Spain. During my tenure in Madrid, I look forward to building on the wonderful foundation of friendship that so happily exists between our two countries.