Analysis: Sweden vs Saudi Arabia or the triumph of realpolitik

Sweden’s energetic minister for foreign affairs is learning the hard way a few basic facts about the Middle East.

By
March 27, 2015 15:30
Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom

Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Margot Wallström, Sweden’s energetic minister for foreign affairs, tried to tackle Saudi Arabia on human rights and is learning the hard way a few basic facts about the Middle East. In fact she might have to resign to defuse the situation.

Fueled by righteous indignation, she condemned the harsh sentence imposed on Raef Badawi, a Saudi blogger found guilty of insulting Islam: life imprisonment and 1,000 lashes.

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The sentence is shocking indeed; however it reflects the true state of human rights – or more accurately the lack of them – not only in Saudi Arabia but in nearly all Islamic countries. A state of affairs which should be roundly condemned by all so-called enlightened nations. Unfortunately, geopolitics and national interests trump moral indignation.

Members of the European Union, Sweden included, tend to be lenient toward their Muslim minorities refusing to obey the law of the land and doing their best to live their lives according to the Shari’a. US President Barack Obama, who chose not take part in the mass demonstration of solidarity in France to protest a series of deadly terrorist attacks, and went instead to congratulate the new Saudi king while expressing his condolences on the death of his predecessor, did not see fit to mention the fate of the blogger.

Outraged at Swedish condemnation, Saudi Arabia blocked Wallström’s scheduled appearance at a meeting of the Arab League, where she was to harangue Arab countries on human rights. Arab League members were probably not too keen on hearing her speech, but this was a way of rewarding Sweden for its anti-Israel positions and for its recognition of a yet unborn Palestinian state.

The spat would probably have died down if the Swedes had not gone several steps further: Wallström condemned the Saudi judicial establishment and the Swedish government decided not to renew the military cooperation agreement between the two countries due to expire in May.

Riyadh retaliated by promptly recalling its ambassador while issuing a communique roundly condemning Stockholm unwarranted interference in Saudi’s internal affairs and hinting at a reevaluation at the relations between the two countries, stressing that the judicial system of Saudi Arabia is independent and based on the Shari’a.

As a further step, no more visas were granted to Swedish businessmen. Saudi media went on the attack and pointedly reminded Stockholm that it had more to lose – the balance of trade between the two countries heavily favoring Sweden. And if it was not enough, the United Arab Emirates also withdrew their ambassador; 30 Arab countries, Egypt included, strongly condemned the Swedish minister as did the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab league.

Faced with this united Arab/ Islamic front, Sweden felt very much alone and panicked at the threat to its commercial ties. The minister for economic affairs announced an urgent meeting with the manufacturers union and Wallström, summoned to the parliament, valiantly tried to stress that Saudi Arabia was a very important factor in the Middle East, a major player in the region and in the world and that good relations with that country were important and valued by Sweden.

She declared that she was convinced that these good relations would soon be restored, adding that she never criticized Islam and did not intent to offend Saudi Arabia. She said that there was ongoing cooperation within the framework of the dialogue between cultures and religions centered in Qatar.

Furthermore, she said that she supported the dialogue between religions in Sweden itself and that considerable funds were allocated to Muslims to help them play a greater role in Swedish society. There were such fulsome expressions of affection and praise for Islam and Saudi Arabia that one could have been pardoned for thinking that Sweden had no truer friend.

This was apparently not enough for the Saudis and Wallström enlisted the help of the Swedish monarch; King Carl Gustav 16 issued a startling communique to the effect that he was worried by the situation and had summoned his minister of foreign affairs to discuss it. This was obviously done to appease his royal Saudi colleague. Yet under Swedish constitution and tradition, the King has no operative role whatsoever; on the rare occasions he has dared to speak his mind on political matters, he was berated by the media and political parties alike. The fact that he was, so to speak, called to take arms for his country shows the depth of the crisis.

One could say that the Swedish minster of foreign affairs and indeed the entire government have “gone to Canossa.”

Sweden, which so enjoys sitting on moral judgment and fighting for human rights, quickly jettisoned its principles to salvage its economic interests.

There was of course no such sea change in its hostile policy toward Israel, but then the Jewish state does not wield the same kind of clout. There is no doubt, however, that there were some in Israel who chuckled quietly when reading the statement released by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, quoted by The Washington Post on March 24, saying Sweden needed to “not claim moral authority to pass one-sided judgments and moral categorizations of others.”

It is worthy of note that the Saudi King, barely two months on the throne, reacted swiftly and powerfully to assert his authority and his leadership at a time when the whole Middle East is in turmoil, fellow Sunni countries in jeopardy and Shia Iran’s interference and incitement at their peak. He affirmed forcefully that his country was based on the Shari’a, which is the fount of its judicial system.

Judges in Saudi Arabia do not go to Paris, London or Washington to learn about law. They look to the Shari’a, and to the Shari’a alone. By deflecting criticism from the issue of human rights to that of Islam, he ensured the support of all Arab countries and organizations.

Saudi Arabia is after all the cradle of Islam and its ruler is the keeper of the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Having flexed its muscles, Saudi Arabia will in all likelihood relent – perhaps at the cost of Wallström’s resignation.

What, if anything, has Sweden learned? That one should choose its fights more carefully and that the defense of human rights is less important than the country’s interests? Still, Sweden is looking forward to “welcoming” more refugees mainly from Arab countries next year. It should keep in mind the fact that its growing Muslim minority aspires to impose the Shari’a on the whole of the country... as it is in Saudi Arabia.

The writer, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania


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