The Swedish government this week decided to scrap an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, effectively bringing to an end a decade-old defence agreement with the kingdom. The move followed complaints made by the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that she was blocked by the Saudis from speaking about democracy and women’s rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo.
Tensions between Stockholm and Riyadh have grown so acute that Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden on Wednesday. The Swedish foreign ministry had published Wallstrom’s planned remarks in Cairo, which made no specific reference to Saudi Arabia but did urge reform on issues of women’s rights. Nevertheless, the Saudi foreign ministry deemed the statement “offensive” and “blatant interference in its internal affairs,” according to the BBC.
Saudi Arabia bought some $39 million in Swedish military equipment last year alone. The kingdom recently became the world’s biggest arms importer; it’s Sweden’s third-largest non-Western customer for weapons.
That Sweden’s centre-left government has chosen to risk that sort of investment — and the ire of prominent business leaders at home — marks an important moment. For decades, Saudi Arabia’s vast energy reserves and strategic position in the Middle East have led Western countries to politely skirt around the issue of the kingdom’s draconian religious laws and woeful human rights record.