Sweden vs. Saudi Arabia or the triumph of realpolitik

Margot Wallström, Swedens 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, writes Zvi Mazel, former Israeli ambassador in Stockholm.

Fueled by righteous indignation, she condemned the harsh sentence imposed on Raef Badawi, a Saudi blogger found guilty of insulting Islam: life imprisonment and 1000 lashes. The sentence is shocking indeed; however, it reflects the true state of human rights or more accurately the lack of human rights not only in Saudi Arabia but in all Islamic countries. A state of affairs which should be roundly condemned by all enlightened nations.

Unfortunately, geopolitics and national interests trump moral indignation. Members of the European Union, Sweden included, tend to be lenient towards their Muslim minorities when they refuse to obey the law of the land and do their best to live their lives according to the sharia. President Obama, who chose not take part in the mass demonstration of solidarity in France to protest a series of deadly terrorist attacks, and instead went 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 the Swedish condemnation, Saudi Arabia blocked Wallströms 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 in fact 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 Stockholms interference in Saudi Arabias internal affairs and hinting at a reevaluation of the relations between the two countries, stressing that the judicial system of Saudi Arabia is independent and based on the Sharia. 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 as the balance of trade between the two countries heavily favors Sweden. And if it were 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 valiantly tried to stress that Saudi Arabia is a major player in the region and in the world and that good relations with the country are valued by Sweden.

She declared that she was convinced that these good relations would soon be restored, adding that she had never criticized Islam and did not intend to offend Saudi Arabia. She stressed 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 had been 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 might 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 XVI Gustaf issued a startling communique to the effect that he was worried about 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 the Swedish constitution and tradition, the King has no operative role whatsoever. On the rare occasions when he has dared to speak his mind on political matters, he has been berated by 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 might say that the Swedish minster of foreign affairs and indeed the entire government have gone to Canossa. Sweden, which so enjoys sitting in moral judgement and fighting for human rights, quickly jettisoned its principles in order to salvage its economic interests. There was of course no such sea change in its hostile policy towards 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 to be noted that 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 Irans interference and incitement at their peak. He affirmed forcefully that his country was based on the Sharia, 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 Sharia, and to the Sharia alone. By deflecting criticism from the issue of human rights to that of Islam, the King 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 in exchange for Wallstroms resignation.


What, if anything, has Sweden learned? That one should choose ones fights more carefully and that the defense of human rights is less important than ones countrys interests? Still, Sweden is looking forward to welcoming more refugees mainly from Arab countries next year. It should keep in mind that its growing Muslim minority aspires to impose the Sharia in Sweden as is the case in Saudi Arabia.


Zvi Mazel, a fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden. 

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