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Diplomatic Monkey Business: Arab World Turns On Sweden After It Dares Call Out Saudi Human Rights Record

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Saudi Arabia blocked Sweden from transferring four pygmy marmosets to a zoo in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, last Thursday. The strange move is just the latest of many extreme measures designed to punish Sweden for questioning the Gulf state’s human rights record.

Sweden’s foreign minister Margot Wallström started the diplomatic spat that has come to be known as the Wallström affair. This petty – but expensive – debacle is thought to have culminated in grovelling apologies from the King of Sweden and the prime minister coupled with reassurances that Sweden will not criticize Saudi or Islam so publicly again and promises to further Islamic interests in Sweden.

Saudi has flexed all its diplomatic muscle – ambassadors have been withdrawn and business visas denied – after portraying criticism of its governance as criticism of 1.6 billion individual Muslims.

It all began when Wallström was unexpectedly invited to address the foreign ministers of the Arab League, who assembled in Cairo on the 9th of March – in response to Sweden’s decision to recognize Palestine.

She had previously described conditions in Saudi Arabia as “medieval,” however, and tweeted that the imprisonment and flogging of blogger and human rights activist Raif Badawi was a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression.”

The foreign minister never got speak as Saudi Arabia moved to block her address. “They have reacted strongly to what we have said about democracy and human rights,” Wallström told Swedish public radio. Nevertheless, a copy of what she had intended to say was published on a Swedish government website.

In it, she states a commitment to human rights and freedoms in a wholly un-provocative manner.

Also on March 9th, a badly timed but related announcement that Sweden would discontinue weapons exports to the regime was made, attributed its human rights record. The Swedes were taking a quiet stand. Just 48 hours later, Saudi played it’s second card and withdrew its ambassador to Sweden.

That same day, other Arab foreign ministers quickly allied themselves (attacking Wallström, not the export announcement) in a furious statement: “Arab countries totally reject Wallström’s statement as irresponsible and unacceptable… Saudi Arabia’s Constitution is based on the Shariah that protects the right of people and safeguards their blood, wealth and honor.”

The United Arab Emirates joined Saudi in applying diplomatic pressure. Then the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, representing a total of 56 Muslim-majority states, accused Sweden of failing to respect the world’s “rich and varied ethical standards.”

Perhaps those “rich and varied ethical standards” included the flogging of bloggers, prevention of women from driving and the practice of forcing young girls into marriage.

On March 20th, Saudi Arabia stopped issuing visas to Swedish businessmen.

Sweden is the world’s 12th largest arms exporter; Saudi is the world second largest arms importer. Sweden’s exports to Saudi Arabia reached US$1.3 billion last year, and US$3.6 billion to the entire Middle East. Breaking arms deals with the Saudi’s had hurt enough, and the business community was conscious that other Muslim nations could follow.

Thirty chief executives – including the Wallenberg family and the chairman of H&M – signed an open letter saying that breaking off trade with Saudi, “would jeopardise Sweden’s reputation as a trade and co-operation partner.” His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf called in Wallström personally and instructed her that a compromise must be found.

Three letters were hand-delivered to King Salman by a high-ranking emissary of the Swedish government over April; one from Sweden’s King and two from the Prime Minister. Their contents remain disputed, as the Swedish foreign office classified them as secret and then claimed to have “lost” them.

The letters, however, are widely thought to have contained apologies, reassurances that Sweden will not criticize Saudi and its Wahhabism again and agreements to further Islamic interests back in Sweden.

On March 28th, Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said to Swedish news channel Expressen: “We have explained [to the Saudis] that we regret if there is something that has been perceived as if we have criticized Islam, which we have never done… We have the greatest respect for Islam as a religion.”

The Minister for Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, has already promised a new “national strategy against Islamophobia” – In Sweden, “Islamophobia” is commonly interpreted as meaning any criticism of Islam. The monkey intervention comes despite all of this.

Löfven went on to claim that “Sweden still stands for human rights. It is immensely important for us to do that. At the same time we also wish to develop cooperation with Saudi Arabia.” But if anything, the Wallström affair has shown the two ends to be utterly incompatible.


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