The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sweden stood up for human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is how Saudi Arabia is punishing Sweden.

Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom during an interview with Sweden's TT News Agency at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in central Stockholm on March 11, 2015. (Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency via Reuters)

You'll find few people who will stick up for the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. Religious minorities, women and homosexuals face repression. Tens of thousands of people are thought to languish in prison for political reasons. And capital or corporal punishment, sometimes even for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, is commonplace.

All told, the Saudi kingdom is not as absurdly horrific as the Islamic State – but sometimes, it's not so far off.

Yet for the past 70 years, Saudi Arabia has been a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. Official calls for the protection of human rights in the country have been muted, when they're heard at all.

One of the few countries to risk its relationship with Saudi Arabia is Sweden. As WorldViews previously reported, after Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom revealed that she was blocked from talking about democracy and women's rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo, Sweden responded by scrapping a major arms deal with the kingdom.

Wallstrom, who promised a "feminist" foreign policy when she entered government, had previously criticized the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi on Twitter and called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship.

Now, Saudi Arabia seems determined to make things uncomfortable for Sweden. Since Wallstrom publicly criticized Saudi Arabia for blocking her talk March 9, there have been a number of notable diplomatic moves:

  • On March 10, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Stockholm, saying it was prompted by Sweden's "interference in its internal affairs."
  • On the same day, foreign ministers from Arab League states issued a joint statement condemning Wallstrom's statement.
  • On March 18, the United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador to Stockholm, condemning the "strong statements made by the Foreign Minister of Sweden to the Swedish Parliament against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its judicial system."
  • On March 19, a Saudi official told the Associated Press that the kingdom would no longer issue business visas to Swedish citizens or renew the current visas of Swedish citizens inside Saudi Arabia.

These acts seem to be clearly designed to pressure Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to distance himself from Wallstrom. And the diplomatic tactics being used by Saudi Arabia are lending themselves to an internal Swedish backlash.

Sweden exported $1.3 billion to Saudi Arabia last year, and Sweden's business community is deeply worried about the financial impact of the dispute with Saudi Arabia. The arms deal alone could be big – Saudi Arabia bought $39 million in Swedish military equipment last year alone. Before the spat had even begun, 31 Swedish business leaders published a statement in DN Debatt newspaper urging the government to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia. "Sweden's reputation as a trade and business partner is at stake," the business leaders wrote.

Saudi Arabia's decision to block visas seems to show that it is aware of its financial clout. "This is going to have a vast negative impact for the companies with interest in the region," Andreas Astrom, communications director at Stockholm's Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press. "This is not good for Swedish business society and, in the long run, jobs in Sweden."

The fear of economic losses also follows a geopolitical line of reasoning. Saudi Arabia is an influential political power in the Middle East, as shown by the United Arab Emirates' decision to follow it in recalling its ambassador and by the backing from the Arab League. "In a very real way, this is about Sweden's credibility as a contractual partner," Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister and prime minister, told Defense News. "That credibility is important to a relatively small country like Sweden. This whole situation is unfortunate."

Sweden's foreign policy in the Middle East has been unusually strident since Wallstrom took charge. Sweden officially recognized Palestine as an independent state this year, sparking an awkward argument with the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even alluded to this in the run-up to this week's Israeli election, claiming that "Scandinavian governments" were working to topple him.

For now, the hope seems to be that things will calm down. Sweden's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dag Yulin Danflet, has been telling the Saudi press that he is seeking to "contain the crisis." And on Friday, Wallstrom told reporters that it was important that Sweden and Saudi Arabia have "good diplomatic relations."

See also

The facts — and a few myths — about Saudi Arabia and human rights

At last, a Western country stands up to Saudi Arabia on human rights

A satirical Ikea guide to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis