Sweden’s ‘humanitarian’ arms sales to the Middle East

When it comes to arms exports, Sweden seems no better or worse than other countries.

April 13, 2015 23:17

Flag of Sweden. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Readers of The Jerusalem Post are surely familiar with the premature decision of the new Swedish government to recognize Palestine. The decision led to a diplomatic dispute between Sweden and Israel. The foreign ministers of the two countries are still not on speaking terms. Maybe it is a small comfort for Israel to know that the Swedish ministry is not very good at maintaining good relations with other countries in the Middle East, either.

There is an old story about a salesman who was sent to South America to sell Swedish arms. Once he sent a telegram to his employer: “The war is ending. Send more weapons.” This obviously happened many years ago but comes to mind again when reflecting on Sweden’s recent diplomatic dispute with Saudi Arabia.

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Sweden likes to present itself as a “humanitarian great power.” True, when it comes to international development aid, Sweden probably gives more aid as a percentage of GDP (although part of it might be tied to Swedish exports) than most countries. It also takes in more refugees per capita than most other countries.

But when it comes to arms exports, Sweden seems no better or worse than other countries. Production and export of arms is one of the few remaining areas that have not been regulated by EU. Member states are free to export what they want to whom they want, provided that no embargo is being violated. They are free, too, to bribe their way to arms deals with dictatorships.

Sweden used to have a strong military based on general conscription, and its air force was one of the biggest in Europe. The idea was to defend Swedish territory against an invasion of the kind which happened to its neighbors during the Second World War. There was no need for Nazi Germany to invade Sweden, however, because it continued until late 1944 to export vital products for the Nazi war machine, in particular iron ore.

To supply its own military with weapons, Sweden has built up an advanced local arms industry. To make the industry profitable, arms export was allowed under certain conditions and controls. The export was not seen as a trade objective in itself but as a means to sustain the industry and enable it to produce weapons for local use. But this is hardly needed any longer since the army has been drastically reduced. However, the same old argument is still used.

In reality, arms export nowadays serves rather as a starter or grease for development of trade relations with foreign markets.

It should be mentioned that it was mainly for marketing reasons that Swedish JAS Gripen planes participated in the NATO air campaign against Libya in 2011 – this according to Swedish author Daniel Suhonen who in 2014 published an insider’s book on Håkan Juholt, who was leader of the Swedish Social Democratic party for less than a year until he was forced to resign.

Commercial interests dictate also Sweden’s behavior in the case of Saudi Arabia, the country which currently is carrying out unprovoked air strikes against Yemen, resulting in the loss of many civilian lives.

The International New York Times reported on March 31 that according to the International Organization for Migration at least 40 people had been killed and more than 200 people wounded in an air strike against a camp for internally displaced persons. Since then more civilian losses have been reported.

If someone is looking for a condemnation on the website of the Swedish Foreign Ministry of the Saudi air strikes, he or she will not find it. No wonder. Sweden has gone out of its way to repair its damaged relations with Saudi Arabia, after deciding some weeks ago not to renew a bilateral agreement on cooperation with the Saudis.

The details of this sad story were revealed recently in an investigative piece in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

Sweden had already in 2005, during the previous Social Democrat-run government, signed a military cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. The agreement had to be renewed each fifth year. In 2010 it was renewed by the former center-right government. Then a scandal happened when it was disclosed in 2012 that a fictitious company had been established, without the formal involvement of the government, to handle the contacts with the Saudis. The Swedish defense minister at the time had to resign. Plans for helping the Saudis to build a production facility were apparently canceled.

For the Saudis the agreement was a condition for buying advanced weapons manufactured in Sweden, such as Erieye (an airborne early warning and control system) and Bill 2 (a guided anti-tank missile). And indeed, Saudi Arabia bought weapons for billions of Swedish krona. A new sale of anti-tank missiles is reported to be in the pipeline.

But the Environment Party, the minor partner in the new Swedish center-left government which came to power after the elections in September 2014, opposed renewing the agreement. The Swedish foreign minister, Margit Wallström, openly criticized Saudi Arabia for its human rights record. The impression was that the agreement was to be canceled because of this.

And without much ado, the Swedish ambassador in Riyadh was instructed on March 8 to inform the Saudis that the agreement had been canceled. It didn’t help that 31 CEOs of leading Swedish companies wrote an op-ed in Dagens Nyheter, warning the government that Sweden’s reputation as trade partner was at stake. Sweden’s export to Saudi Arabia, worth 11 billion Swedish krona in 2014, was threatened.

The Saudis didn’t take long to react. Wallström had been invited to give a keynote speech at the meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on March 9. Her speech was canceled and she was forced to leave Cairo without accomplishing her task. All the Arab ministers of foreign affairs condemned Sweden for its criticism of Saudi Arabia. The Saudi ambassador was recalled from Stockholm.

Since then the relations between Sweden and Saudi Arabia have barely been repaired. In an unusual and possibly unconstitutional step the Swedish king was asked by the government – which in principle is against the monarchy – to intervene and send a letter of apology to his Saudi Arabian counterpart, asking for respectful and good relations.

Internationally, Sweden seems to have been credited for risking its profitable arms export by taking a stance against Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. The truth is that all Sweden wanted was to stop supporting Saudi Arabia from developing its own capacity for manufacturing weapons.

To continue selling anti-tank missiles and other weapons to Saudi Arabia – that’s obviously OK.

Trade between Sweden and Israel is much less. Still, shouldn’t Sweden make an effort to repair its relations with Israel as well, for the sake of the Middle East peace process? In this case, there is no need to ask the Swedish king – who never has visited Israel and probably doesn’t intend to do it – to intervene.

The author is of Swedish origin and a former official of the European Commission where he worked with public administration reform in the candidate countries.

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