Sweden’s decision to cancel an arms-selling deal with Saudi Arabia was applauded by human rights defenders. Sweden, which is seen as a paragon of democracy and respect for human rights, also has a large weapons industry. In 2014, Sweden was the world’s third largest weapons exporter per capita, while Saudi Arabia is now the world’s largest weapons importer. The agreement between the two countries, which is overall a military cooperation agreement of which arms sales form one part, dates back to 2005 and if Stockholm hadn’t cancelled it, it would have entered another 5-year period in May this year.
The cancellation of the agreement came in the wake of Saudi Arabia blocking a speech of Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallström, at the Arab League in Cairo. This speech was going to focus on human rights, with emphasis on women’s advancements and representation – topics which are virtually alien to Saudi Arabia. Wallström was invited to deliver that speech after Sweden recognized the Palestinian State in October last year, becoming the first EU country to do so.
It seems that despite Saudi Arabia’s nominal commitment to the Palestinian people, its concerns about a Swedish speech on human rights and with emphasis on women’s rights amounted to an interference in its internal affairs (which probably shows how the Saudi government fears not being seen as legitimate by its population). As such, Riyadh preferred to block the event altogether. By restricting the Swedish foreign minister’s speech at the Arab League (where she was a guest of honour), Saudi Arabia gave Sweden a figurative slap on the face. This all the Swedish government needed to refuse renewing the military cooperation agreement between the two countries. The current government in Stockholm, which came out of the September 2014 elections, has pledged to give human rights a significant importance on its foreign policy and when its foreign minister is blocked from talking about the subject at an international forum, it makes sense to take retaliatory measures of this kind – especially when said measures can be directly linked to a foreign policy goal. Faced with such an action by Saudi Arabia, there was very little Sweden could do to be able to justify itself.
Unfortunately, and as much as I would like to see a larger trend of liberal democracies and other like-minded countries giving a higher importance to human rights in their foreign policies beyond simple rhetoric, what happened between Sweden and Saudi Arabia was most likely a strictly bilateral dispute, which will remain bilateral in its consequences.
To nobody’s surprise, human rights and women’s rights in particular are as popular with the Saudi government as Grand Moff Tarkin is appreciated by the people of planet Alderaan (for the very brief seconds when it was actually possible for the people of Alderaan to have an opinion about Tarkin anyway). It’s not astonishing then that Wallström’s speech was not going to please Riyadh. But in Saudi Arabia’s calculation, risking a strong reaction from Sweden seems to be worth the risk of vexing the EU’s first country to recognize the Palestinian State (a fundamental foreign policy cause of the Arab states). Riyadh can most likely get its weapons elsewhere – there are plenty of potential suppliers – and its inescapable place as a crucial element in fighting jihadist groups in the Middle East and countering Iran will ensure that other Western countries will not follow Stockholm’s example. This, of course, despite the fact that such jihadist movements would not have their dimension and potential to commit acts of terrorism without Saudi Arabia…
It’s not the first time, nor the second or even the tenth time that Saudi Arabia is the target of criticism for human rights abuses. Has that ever done anything significant for the Saudis, who don’t enjoy a fraction of the same rights as we do in liberal democracies or even in some Arab states? This episode will most likely remain a Swedish – Saudi affair, given that no other Western country wishes to drop its decades-old support to Riyadh, no matter what human rights violations happen in Saudi Arabia. Or at least, no country with the size and dimension necessary to actually have an impact on Saudi Arabia.
Obviously, standing for principles has its price. In this case, Sweden’s weapons exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to approximately 1 billion euros, with Stockholm being one of Riyadh’s main suppliers of military equipment. The decision to drop this will have its cost on Sweden’s foreign trade balance, and several Swedish economic powerhouses disagreed with the government, claiming that Sweden was harming its credibility as a trade partner. Opposition political forces in Sweden have also criticised the decision, as well as Stockholm’s recognition of the Palestinian state. This only reinforces the point that cancelling the agreement between Sweden and Saudi Arabia is essentially a political action of the current Swedish government, one which may be reversed by a hypothetical next cabinet without any improvement in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation, especially given the criticism of a large part of Sweden’s exporting industries.
If the goal is to really render Saudi Arabia irrelevant, perhaps it’s high time to finally come to an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. Even if Tehran is quite some parsecs away from being Master Jedi of human rights, an agreement which would put an end to the mutual mistrust between Iran and the West would be a big blow to Saudi Arabia. In the long-term, put an end to our dependence on fossil fuels once and for all, as this would cause a tremendous harm to a state whose treatment of its citizens seems more fitting in a twisted fiction tale.