Eight years after it closed its doors, the Embassy of Sweden in Manila re-opened in November 2016 under the leadership of newly appointed Ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Harald Fries.
The top diplomat is not new to the Philippines, having served as First Secretary at the embassy from 1991 to 1995. He also happens to be married to a Filipina, whom he first met in Stockholm when they were both working at the global telecoms corporation Ericsson.
In a sit-down interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, the ambassador and his wife Susan shared their unique experiences together around the globe.
“Susan and I first met through a colleague when we both worked at Ericsson back in 1985. A few years later, we married here in Manila. By that time, I was working at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs in Stockholm. Little did we know that only a year later, we would be posted to the Philippines,” the Ambassador happily recalled to The Sunday Times Magazine.
“We have two sons, but neither of them moved to the Philippines with us [this time]. For the first time, we are finding ourselves as empty nesters,” Fries chuckled.
“Our boys, Carl-Fredrik, who recently turned 21, and Axel, who is 19, are both happy being half Swedish and half Filipino. Although they’ve lived most of their lives in Sweden, and are currently studying abroad, they really enjoy coming here and spending time with their cousins during their school holidays.”
According to Susan, her family and friends were ecstatic when they learned that her husband was going to be posted to the Philippines again after many years.
“My family and friends were thrilled. They’ve been a huge support for me since we moved here in September,” Susan said.
“While Harald was occupied with starting up the embassy, I was faced with the challenge of setting up the Swedish residence. I could not have done it without the help of my friends and family.”
Prior to moving to the Philippines, Susan was employed by the city of Stockholm as an English home language teacher.
She shared, “Sweden has a very generous program for children who speak another language, other than Swedish, in their homes. These children have a right to classes in their mother tongue. I taught students who spoke English as their home language.”
As a former teacher, she would like to be involved in a charity or an NGO that focuses on improving the standard of education, particularly in English fluency and literacy during her husband’s posting in Manila.
“I feel very strongly that proficiency in English is important for us to maintain our global competitiveness,” she said.
Ambassador Harald Fries—who took his Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Stockholm School of Economics in 1979 and Master of Arts in Economics at University of Southern California in 1981—has also served at the Swedish missions in New York and Geneva in addition to his previous posting in Manila.
Before his designation as Ambassador to the Philippines, he was the deputy head of the Foreign Ministry’s Department for the European Union in Stockholm. Ambassador Fries also spent 10 years in the private sector before joining the Swedish diplomatic service.
“It’s the first time I am assigned as an ambassador. It is different from any job I have had, and so far I think it is more fun than any of my previous positions. I am invited to so many interesting events and organizations. And the doors are almost always open when I ask for meetings. It is amazing how Filipinos make me and other foreigners feel warmly welcome here. I spend a lot of my time outside the embassy – and in traffic – trying to get to know as much of the country and its culture as possible.
“Although I have been in the Philippines every year for more than 30 years visiting my wife´s family and even lived here for several years, there are many things in this society which are still difficult for me to really grasp. But I am making progress,” he noted.
“Another difference from my previous positions is that I am now treated with such formality. I am often addressed with ‘Your Excellency,’ ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr. Ambassador’. I am still not used to this, coming from a country where we deal with each other in a very informal way. Internally at my embassy, I try to nurture a Swedish, more informal way of working together,” Fries added.
“The return of the Embassy of Sweden to Manila makes it much easier to enhance relations between the two countries,” enthused Ambassador Fries.
He explained that the main task of the embassy is to increase trade and investment exchange. In connection
with the inauguration of the embassy in November 2017 the largest ever Swedish business delegation visited Manila.
“It was a success,” Ambassador Fries beamed. “The Swedish business people returned to Sweden encouraged by the meetings and briefings they had here. We are now following up this visit in order to establish lasting business partnerships.”
The top diplomat would also like to see more people-to-people exchange between Sweden and the Philippines. For instance, he expects the number of Swedish tourists to increase significantly when infrastructure has improved in this country.
“Fifteen times more Swedes visit Thailand than the Philippines every year. This just shows the potential [for tourism]to your country,” Fries imparted.
More exchange of students and researchers is another area that he is hopeful about. He referred to ongoing discussions between several Swedish and Philippine universities.
“I also want to show the Filipino people that Sweden is a progressive and creative country. Few people know that Skype and Spotify were invented in Sweden. Or that global artists like Zara Larson, Robyn and Avici are Swedish. Many young Filipinos play the world famous computer games Minecraft and Candy Crush without knowing that they were developed in Sweden. I want to modernize the image of Sweden,” he averred.
This year, Sweden and the Philippines celebrate 70 years of excellent diplomatic relations.
“I look forward to doing my very best to develop Sweden´s relations with the Philippines even further,” Ambassador Fries ended.