The fallout after Sweden cancels arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Human rights concerns at issue

The Swedish government has cancelled an arms contract with Saudi Arabia worth €37 million last year and €500 million since 2011, because of a dispute over the abuse of human rights in the kingdom. The row was brought to a head last week when the Saudis persuaded the Arab League to cancel a speech by Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallström due at its meeting in Cairo.

The speech mentioned neither Saudi Arabia nor Wallström’s feminist foreign policy agenda but stressed women’s and human rights. In recent weeks Swedish politicians have also been vocal in criticising Saudi Arabia’s use of sharia law and cited cases like the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi earlier this year to argue that the country infringes human rights. In response the Arab League issued an outrageous unanimous declaration insisting that “sharia has guaranteed human rights and preserved people’s lives, possessions, honour and dignity. The [Arab League] ministers consider the comments as irresponsible and unacceptable.”

Ironically the invitation was extended in the first place to honour Sweden as the first EU country officially to recognise Palestine. The Swedish announcement comes days after unconfirmed German news reports claimed that it too would no longer be supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia, allegedly because the government has decided "the situation in the region is too unstable to ship there." A survey by Bild found, however, that 78 per cent of Germans support stopping arms sales and 60 per cent want to break off trade ties with the kingdom altogether due to human rights violations. Saudi Arabia is one of the most important clients of its arms industry – it paid German weapons manufacturers €360 million in 2013.

For too long Saudi Arabia has been seen by western countries simply as an important strategic ally whose disregard for women’s and human rights was an inconvenience that should simply be ignored. The decisions by the Swedes and Germans are, it is to be hoped, a welcome sign of a wider change of heart.