The Swedish government this week decided to scrap an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, effectively bringing to an end a decade-old defence agreement with the kingdom. The move followed complaints made by the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that she was blocked by the Saudis from speaking about democracy and women’s rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo.
Tensions between Stockholm and Riyadh have grown so acute that Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden on Wednesday. The Swedish foreign ministry had published Wallstrom’s planned remarks in Cairo, which made no specific reference to Saudi Arabia but did urge reform on issues of women’s rights. Nevertheless, the Saudi foreign ministry deemed the statement “offensive” and “blatant interference in its internal affairs,” according to the BBC.
Oh really – so now people aren’t allowed to talk about women’s rights in general because that’s “offensive” to Saudi Arabia?
The Saudis spent $39 million on Swedish military equipment last year.
That Sweden’s centre-left government has chosen to risk that sort of investment — and the ire of prominent business leaders at home — marks an important moment. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s vast energy reserves and strategic position in the Middle East have led Western countries to politely skirt around the issue of the kingdom’s draconian religious laws and woeful human rights record.
And not just the governments of Western countries, but also the media of same. S. Arabia’s horrifying human rights record has been horrifyingly under-reported over here.
The double-standard in Western attitudes toward Saudi Arabia has looked particularly glaring in the past year. After the Islamic State began decapitating American hostages in its custody, Saudi Arabia — a key ally in the US-led coalition against the jihadists — carried out beheadings of inmates on death row.
American politicians routinely hurl invective against Iran, accusing the Islamic Republic of fomenting terrorism abroad and maintaining a tyranny at home. But Saudi Arabia has an even less democratic system than that in Tehran, and as the chief incubator of orthodox Salafism, has played its own unique role in the rise of fundamentalist terror groups around the Middle East and South Asia.
And it keeps women much much more confined and rightsless and dependent and subject to contempt and hatred.
Sweden’s decision came after months of “nail-biting,” reports Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky. But it’s likely just the start of a larger European conversation regarding the ethics of dealing with Saudi Arabia.
Well done Sweden!