In the vast expanse of the Mediterranean Sea sits the Republic of Malta. With a population of half a million covering only 321 square kilometers, some people are often quick to overlook this state, often looking towards its much larger European neighbours. Overlooking Malta is a mistake; this tiny island is the embodiment of “small and mighty”.
As the summer begins, ports of Malta brim with tourists. Carefully planned urban infrastructure coupled with the beautiful Mediterranean beaches make Malta an ideal vacation spot. Added with the warmth of the locals and joyous festivities, tourists often describe Malta as simply breathtaking. Its small population welcomed last year a staggering 2.6 million tourists, just over five times the number of its residents.
The per capita income (in PPP) of this country is more than 48 thousand US dollars. Synergy between public and private sectors allowed such economic progress. In fact, this partnership and astute management of its economy helped Malta avert the economic recession that plagued the rest of Europe. It is this innovative mentality that helped Malta gain highest economic growth in the European continent.
In this extraordinary achievement Malta echoes what Bangladesh experienced in its own economic journey. We have firmly established ourselves as the role model of development in Asia, as Malta secured its own place of prestige in Europe. These two success stories in two continents lays out a platform for the two countries to join hands through timely and suitable diplomatic collaboration to further uplift the fate of their people.
The friendly relations of Bangladesh and Malta has its origins in Bangladesh’s tumultuous beginnings. During the epic year of 1971, the then Maltese Prime Minister extended his support for our rightful cause. Arguably, Malta had been with us at our most important and historic time; standing as our friend since those days of agony and promise. Malta later became one of the earliest countries to formally recognise Bangladesh in 1972. The friendship continued when later, in 1979, the institutional diplomatic relations between the two countries were launched with the appointment of a non-resident High Commissioner to Bangladesh.
Fast forward to the present day: The rapid socio-economic development of Bangladesh under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has drawn substantial international attention. At the same time, Bangladesh has found a place of dignity in the comity of nations. We now have a proactive and strong diplomatic presence on the world stage.
As part of our active diplomatic engagements, relations between Bangladesh and Malta have also received a momentum. Our two countries extended support to each other at different multilateral, international fora including the UN. The two countries share common positions on many international issues. As a result, understanding between our two countries has further strengthened over the years.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries. On the eve of this special occasion, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh AK Abdul Momen paid an official visit to Malta in July this year. Foreign Minister’s visit has been important for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, this was the first ever bilateral visit at the level of the Foreign Minister.
During this visit, the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh had a threadbare discussion with his Maltese counterpart Carmelo Abela on issues of mutual interests. Apart from issues pertaining to bilateral relations, they spoke about cooperation at international level.
Furthermore, the Foreign Minister had meetings with the President, Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Maltese Parliament. These meetings were not limited to exchange of pleasantries; they were indeed very substantive and fruitful. Both sides underscored the importance of frequent high-level contacts to take advantage of the goodwill created at the political level. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of Malta urged to utilize the opportunities between the two countries.
Additionally, the two ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding on regular meetings between the two Foreign Ministries. They have also penned another document for cooperation between the diplomatic academies of their respective countries.
Lastly, the two Foreign Ministers also spoke at a Business Forum jointly organized by Malta Chamber, Trade Malta and Bangladesh Embassy in Athens (concurrently accredited to Malta). The Forum had upbeat, enthusiastic and optimistic discussions on tapping potential in bilateral trade and investment. The leadership of Maltese businesses expressed their keen interests by joining this Forum.
It goes without saying that Bangladesh’s relations with Malta received a big boost as a result of this much awaited visit. It has been elevated to a new height. Understanding at this high level may act as a catalyst to bring a qualitative change in our diplomacy. Political understanding has been further consolidated. At the diplomatic level, intent for sincere collaboration has been demonstrated unequivocally.
There are many areas of existing cooperation between the two countries. This cooperation can be further expanded in a number of specific areas:
a. The strong tourism sector and the ongoing infrastructure development in Malta have created opportunity for Bangladeshi skilled and semi-skilled workers. The ongoing construction work for the beautification and repair work of the five hundred-year-old Maltese capital Valletta and to fulfil the demand of the ever increasing tourism sector has generated this employment opportunity. At the moment, a few hundred Bangladeshi expatriates are working in Malta. They have earned the trust of the local people because of their hard work and respect for local laws. This attitude of the host community has been amply reflected in the presence of the Maltese Foreign Minister and his wife at an event organized by the expatriate Bangladesh nationals living in Malta. Mayors Msida and Gzira and local officials also joined this event
b. Malta is known for its expertise in financial management. Hopefully, the two sides will extend their cooperation in this area for their mutual benefits.
c. Malta also specializes in the registering of ships; being the biggest in the field in Europe, and one of the biggest in the world. The increasing ship building sector of Bangladesh can benefit by establishing close contact with the concerned ship registration bodies in Malta.
d. Malta is also popular among multinational companies and countries interested to export their products for registration of commodities. Maltese expertise may help us secure a sizable pharmaceutical market in Europe.
e. The optimistic discussion at the Maltese Chamber on the potential of bilateral trade has created an opportunity to identify specific sectors for effective cooperation. At the moment, the total volume of bilateral trade is negligible. Efforts by both the government and the private sectors of the respective countries can help to increase this volume significantly.
f. Malta and Bangladesh can employ their expertise to extend cooperation in Blue economy, manpower development, education and culture, among other potential areas.
g. At the international level two countries have an impeccable record of close cooperation. Common position on international issues including the climate change issue and membership in international organizations such as the Commonwealth and the UN made this cooperation multidimensional. As an active member of the European Union Malta has been extending its support to Bangladesh on Rohingya issue. It is expected that this bonding of friendship and fraternity will be further strengthened in the days to come.
h. At his meeting with the Speaker of the Maltese Parliament, formation of parliamentary friendship groups in their respective parliaments featured prominently. It is heartening indeed to see that Maltese Parliament has formed Malta-Bangladesh Parliamentary Friendship Group in less than a month of our Foreign Minister’s visit to Malta. Hopefully, the friendship group in our Parliament will also be formed soon, so that parliamentary diplomacy can contribute to the development of relations between the two countries.
We can bring home the fruits of the positive attitude created by the Foreign Minister’s historic visit, by taking realistic and timely steps. Holding the annual Foreign Office consultations, and the visit by the Maltese Foreign Minister will create further momentum to achieve the goals. Such steps will also usher new avenues in our bilateral relations.
As the Maltese Foreign Minister Carmelo Abela humorously noted, life begins at 40. Indeed, 40th anniversary has seen an increased trajectory in Bangladeshi-Maltese relations. As part of the multipronged and dynamic foreign policy under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, we open a new chapter of our relations with Malta. The small island State in the Mediterranean supported us when we were fighting for our independence under the leadership of the Father of the Nation. Our friendships was upheld through Bangladesh’s most tumultuous times. We hope that in this new journey, this strong friendship continues, and the citizens of both countries continue to benefit.
Writer is Ambassador of Bangladesh to Greece and non-resident High Commissioner of Bangladesh for Malta