Saudi Arabia recalls ambassador from Sweden amid deepening political differences

Published March 12th, 2015 - 06:11 GMT
The ceased arms deal had made Saudi the third largest non-Western buyer of Swedish arms, with a Riyadh purchase of some $39 million worth of equipment in 2014. (AFP/File)
The ceased arms deal had made Saudi the third largest non-Western buyer of Swedish arms, with a Riyadh purchase of some $39 million worth of equipment in 2014. (AFP/File)

Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Sweden, the Swedish Foreign Ministry said Wednesday, widening a diplomatic rift between two countries with sharply contrasting views on everything from women’s rights to criminal justice.

The move comes after Sweden refused to renew a 10-year-old weapons deal with Saudi Arabia and the Saudis blocked the Swedish foreign minister from giving a speech to the Arab League.

Swedish Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabriel Wernstedt said the Saudis were recalling their ambassador because of “Sweden’s criticism regarding human rights and democracy” in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The official Saudi Press Agency reported that the Saudi Foreign Ministry recalled its diplomat because it considered remarks by Sweden’s foreign minister about the kingdom as “blatant interference it its internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia is the third largest non-Western buyer of Swedish arms. In 2014, Riyadh bought equipment worth 338 million kronor ($39 million).

Wallstroem had been invited as an honorary guest to the Arab ministers’ meeting in praise of her government’s decision to recognize Palestine in October.

But an opening speech she was due to give in which she stressed human rights, with a particular emphasis on rights for women, was canceled. The speech was later published by the Swedish Foreign Ministry.

Wallstroem has rarely commented on Saudi Arabia but in January she condemned the kingdom’s treatment of blogger Raef Badawi, who had been sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam.

The day after she was prevented from speaking in Cairo, her government scrapped its military cooperation deal with the Saudis after coming under intense domestic pressure.

Wallstroem told news agency TT Wednesday her government had made the “correct” decision by ending the agreement. “I feel that when I speak about democracy and human rights, I do with the support of the Swedish people.”

The scrapped deal involved exchanges of military products, logistics, technology and training. Signed by a left-wing government in 2005 and renewed in 2010, it sparked a heated debate after Swedish Radio in 2011 revealed that Sweden had secretly helped the Saudis construct a weapons factory.

The Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said Tuesday only cooperation in medicine and gender studies would remain on offer. “What we have is an open invitation to partake in medical and gender training, but the Saudi side has not shown any interest.”

“It’s very hard for Swedes to accept that Saudi citizens condone this political and judicial system: Hands that are cut off for robbers, women convicted for being unfaithful, lashings,” political scientistThord Janson at Gothenburg University told AFP.

“So the government doesn’t want to have a military bond with such a country. It’s a logic that’s internal to Sweden,” he added.

Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Loefven’s government came to power in October 2014 announcing a “feminist foreign policy” and promptly decided to recognize Palestine, becoming the first Western European nation to do so. The decision caused a diplomatic spat with Israel, which temporarily recalled its ambassador from Sweden.

Commenting on the severed military ties, liberal writer Fredrik Segerfeldt wrote that Sweden’s objective was “to become a moral power” on the world stage.

But taking a stance against Saudi Arabia today risked Sweden’s credibility as a business partner, according to some center-right opposition politicians and the Swedish business community. “Foreign policy is not only about other countries,” right-wing daily Svenska Dagbladet wrote in an editorial, noting that Swedish industry “must be allowed to trade ... even with dictatorships.”

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