The Saudi storm that blew over

Events this week echo those in 2015, when Sweden spoke out against Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Years later, as David Crouch recounts, the damage is but a distant memory. 

By: /
August 10, 2018
Wallstrom
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom gestures during an interview with Sweden's TT News Agency at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency

Saudi Arabia is persecuting free speech activists. An outspoken female foreign minister talks tough on human rights. A diplomatic rift begins with a tweet. Big weapons deals and wider trade relations are at stake.

This is not Canada today, but Sweden in 2015, when criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record infuriated Arab leaders, divided Swedish politics and sent a shiver through the business community, which feared damage to Sweden’s reputation and loss of a lucrative market.

Three years on, however, Sweden’s spat with the Saudi kingdom seems like a distant memory. Although the details of what happened remain cloudy, the situation was resolved within three weeks and diplomatic relations settled down soon after. 

“There was a big fuss at the time but things quite quickly went back to normal,” said Anna Sundström in an interview with OpenCanada this week. Sundström is secretary general of the Olof Palme International Center, a Swedish international development agency close to the ruling Social Democratic Party. 

“This is the way that Saudi Arabia acts. The current situation with Canada shows that this is their normal procedure — to make a big fuss and turn things upside down. But they also value relationships with other countries, they have something to win from normalization.”

The Swedish events started on the day that Saudi blogger Raif Badawi received 50 lashes in a public flogging for “insulting Islam.” He had been sentenced in 2014 to 10 years in jail, a large fine and 1,000 lashes. 

Badawi’s sister Samar, a women’s rights activist, was arrested in Saudi Arabia last week, prompting Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to tweet in support of the family. Saudi Arabia has since announced a slew of reprisal acts, including the expelling of Canada’s ambassador, the cancellation of flights and student scholarships, and a freeze on new export deals.

Back in 2015, following Badawi’s 50 lashes, Margot Wallström, Sweden’s foreign minister, tweeted: “This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped.” Later she said Badawi’s punishment was “medieval” and called the Saudi regime a “dictatorship.” 

Wallström, a former top EU bureaucrat and UN special envoy, has been a popular Social Democrat in a centre-left coalition of her party together with Sweden’s Greens. Her government had come to power just a few months before, pledging to be the world’s first feminist administration and a “humanitarian superpower.”

One of its first acts was to recognize Palestine as a state, becoming the first EU country to do so. But this bold move, warmly welcomed in Arab capitals, would not save Sweden from Saudi wrath. 

Tensions surfaced two months after Wallström’s tweet about Badawi. Expecting to bask in leaders’ approval as guest of honour at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Wallström found instead that Saudi Arabia had pressured organizers to cancel her speech, in which she was due to “celebrate women’s achievements” and focus on women’s rights and representation. 

Arab leaders lined up to back Riyadh and condemn Wallström’s “irresponsible and unacceptable” comments on Saudi Arabia. The next day the diplomatic row deepened when Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm, citing Sweden’s criticisms of Saudi human rights and democracy, according to Sweden’s foreign ministry at the time. The Saudi government called the criticism “flagrant interference” of its internal affairs and suspended visas for Swedish business people.

The situation was complicated by the fact that a decade-long memorandum of understanding over military cooperation between the two countries was shortly due for renewal. While Wallström herself was in favour of prolonging the agreement, citing the importance of trade, other ministers were opposed. 

The government decided to scrap the agreement shortly after Wallström’s speech to the Arab League was blocked. Swedish business leaders feared that trade with the kingdom — and Sweden’s trading reputation more generally — were being sacrificed on the altar of human rights. 

The Swedish centre-right saw this as a foreign policy debacle. Former foreign minister Carl Bildt declared: “Sweden has been damaged.” 

Though the details remain obscure, two key interventions appear to have helped resolve the situation. 

Sweden’s prime minister Stefan Löfven wrote a letter to Riyadh. The letter was not made public and Löfven claimed that he did not apologize for Wallström’s remarks, but diplomatic observers said the language of the letter was clearly conciliatory. Wallström publicly declined to repeat her characterization of Saudi Arabia as a dictatorship.

"Riyadh re-established diplomatic relations and restored its ambassador to Stockholm shortly after."

Sweden’s king, Carl Gustav, also wrote to the Saudi royals. Both letters were perceived by Saudi media as apologies — something Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems reluctant to do. Riyadh re-established diplomatic relations and restored its ambassador to Stockholm shortly after. A year later, Löfven was accompanied by Swedish business leaders on an official visit to Riyadh. 

Was Sweden “damaged” by the spat? Weapons exports to Saudi Arabia continue, but at a much lower level than before. However, the value of Swedish arms exports to the kingdom had already fallen dramatically before the diplomatic incident, as a huge deal in 2010 to supply the Saudis with Swedish manufacturer Saab’s Erieye airborne radar system gradually dropped out of the annual figures. 

There has been speculation in Swedish media that Saudi Arabia is using Erieye to identify targets in its bombing campaign against Yemen. Meanwhile, total Swedish military exports were SKr 11.3 billion (CAD$1.6 billion) in 2017 — an increase of more than 45 percent on 2015. In April, Sweden introduced stricter rules on selling arms to regimes with poor records on democracy and human rights. 

At SKr 9.2 billion (CAD$1.3 billion) in 2017, total annual Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia were some 18 percent below their 2014 level, but that figure in turn was significantly below the 2013 peak of SKr 12.7 billion (CAD$1.8 billion). In other words, like arms sales, overall exports were also on the decline before the spat.

So if Sweden was damaged at all by what happened in 2015, the effects appear to have been limited. As Erik Helmerson, a writer for Dagens Nyheter, the leading Swedish liberal daily, put it: “We wag a finger with one hand and sign trade agreements with the other.” 

Sundström, of the Olof Palme International Center, says Sweden’s brief squabble with Riyadh illustrates a Saudi method at work — its actions are a broader signal to the world that it will not accept criticism of its domestic policies.

“This also shows the importance of other countries backing the ones that are under fire when things like this occur,” she says. 

“Democracy and human rights are not valued so highly by many countries today, therefore it is important for those of us who still stand for these values to speak out.”

Like Canada this week, Sweden also received little public support from other governments back in 2015.

Though Sweden’s foreign ministry told OpenCanada this week that Wallström was “not available for a comment at this time,” Swedish media reported Thursday that Wallström has been in contact with Freeland and the two countries are working “quietly” together to resolve the crisis.

And, like the editorials that have been published in the United States and Britain, Dagens Nyheter has also called for the Swedish government to pressure the EU to back Canada. “The advancing position of dictatorships, in combination with America’s abdication of responsibility, means that the rest of the free world must stick together,” its note read.