Diplomatic rift between Saudi Arabia and Sweden deepens

Diplomatic rift between Saudi Arabia and Sweden deepens
3 min read
11 March, 2015
Stockholm has cancelled a military cooperation deal between the two countries, prompting Riyadh to recall its ambassador and accuse Sweden of "flagrant interference".
Sweden's foreign minister, Margot Wallstroem, promotes Palestinian statehood and women's rights [Getty]

Saudi Arabia has recalled its Stockholm ambassador and accused Sweden of "flagrant interference in internal affairs", after Sweden cancelled a military cooperation agreement with the kingdom.

"Diplomatic relations are not broken. But Saudi Arabia's ambassador has been recalled," spokesman Erik Boman told AFP.

Sweden scrapped a long-standing military deal with the Gulf superpower on Tuesday after accusing Riyadh diplomats of blocking Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem from speaking at an Arab League meeting.

     In practical terms, there is no military cooperation.

- Peter Hultaqvist, Swedish defence minister

"This is not a game. It's a serious issue that must be treated seriously," Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Loefven told public broadcaster Swedish Radio on Wednesday.

However, the Social Democrats refused to cite human rights as a motive for the decision. Wallstroem, who was invited to speak at the Arab League as an honorary guest, has said that her opening speech at Monday's meeting in Cairo was blocked by the Saudis for her pro-democracy stance in the region.

"The explanation we have been given is that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights, and that is why they do not want me to speak," she told Cairo's TT news agency.

The military deal, which was due for renewal for another five years in May, has come under fire in Scandinavia after journalists revealed in 2011 that Sweden had secretly helped the Saudis construct a weapons factory.

The prime minister also come under intense pressure from its Green Party coalition partners, who have opposed the deal categorically and campaigned for its cancellation.

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

Wallstroem's speech, later published on the Swedish foreign ministry website, does not voice direct criticism against the oil-rich kingdom, but touches more broadly on the issue of women and human rights, and the importance of recognising Palestinian statehood.

At the end of the meeting, Arab foreign ministers defended Saudi Arabia's human rights record and criticised the Swedish foreign minister's comments.

"The ministers have voiced their condemnation and astonishment at the issuance of such statements that are incompatible with the fact that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia," the ministers said in a statement, according to Swedish media.

With the annulment of the deal, only limited cooperation remains on offer, according to the Swedish defence minister.

"In practical terms, there is no military cooperation," the minister, Peter Hultqvist, told public broadcaster SVT.

"What we have is an open invitation to partake in medical and gender studies, but the Saudi side has not shown any interest," he added.

Sweden's decision to scrap the agreement "is actually not surprising after such a heated debate", political scientist Thord Janson at the University of Gothenburg told AFP.

"What surprised [me] more was the signing of this agreement ten years ago, when Saudi Arabia was more or less considered a normal country," he added.