March newsmaker: Margot Wallström

Human rights violator and solid oil ally Saudi Arabia was outraged when Sweden cancelled an arms deal. It’s actually a perfect gesture

We often roll our eyes at our neighbour across the bridge to the east. Drawn like moths to a flame, Swedes pour into Copenhagen’s downtown clubs on weekends, slamming down beers that cost a mere 60 kroner, compounding the misery of inner city residents.

Their politically-correct ways are also a mystery to us. For while Denmark champions artistic bigots like Dan Park, Sweden sends them to prison. When Denmark tried to export a pro-tolerance black face performance piece to Malmö last summer, we were promptly told to leave.

But once again the Swedes have outdone us. Not content with just having the best pop band of all time, the best system for selling furniture, as well as the safest cars in the world, they have now stood up for their beliefs and entered a costly diplomatic brawl with possibly the worst country on Earth – Saudi Arabia.

That escalated quickly
The tussle started in January, when Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström criticised Saudi Arabia for its abhorrent record on human rights.

“This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped,” she tweeted, referring to the 1,000 lashes and 10 years’ imprisonment that had been handed out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for political dissent.

Then, in March, Saudi Arabia decided to block a speech that Wallström was due to give at an Arab League meeting in Cairo. Her speech did not explicitly mention Saudi Arabia, but was focused on human rights in the Middle East and the need to recognise Palestine.

Sweden responded to the snub by refusing to renew a lucrative decade-long arms agreement with the Arabian tycoon. Saudi Arabia and its close ally the United Arab Emirates accused Sweden of violating their sovereignty and recalled their ambassadors. Later, Saudi Arabia extended its rebuke by cancelling the business visas of all Swedish citizens working in the country.

Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s 18th biggest trading partner and the business community has condemned the government for interrupting relations with such a lucrative export market – last year’s Sweden’s trade with Saudia Arabia was worth around nine billion Danish kroner.

Saab said they would continue to sell radar technology to the country and the heads of 31 companies, including our favourite low cost, poor quality garment provider H&M, wrote an open letter criticising the move.

Rights over trade
The move might harm Sweden’s bottom line, but it is worth noting that Freedom House, a U.S. based human rights watchdog, consistently rates Saudi Arabia at the bottom of its Freedom in the World index, where it gets the lowest score in all possible categories.

There the country occupies a space with such countries as Somalia and North Korea, with the latter being routinely faced with strict international sanctions.

Sweden is not the first country to cancel an arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Last year Germany cancelled the sale of Leopard tanks to the desert kingdom, due at least in part to their human rights violations.

In both countries there was opposition to the decision to cancel trade agreements, not only for economic reasons, but also because Saudi Arabia is an ally of the West in a region facing increased instability due to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

But in a world where profits and pragmatism are consistently put ahead of principles, it’s reassuring when a country dares to take a hit for human rights. Bra gjort! M


By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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