Saudi Arabia's Response to Swedish Criticism Tests Europe's Reach

By Aya Batrawy; Karl Ritter | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), March 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Saudi Arabia's Response to Swedish Criticism Tests Europe's Reach


Aya Batrawy; Karl Ritter, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates - Sweden's foreign minister is hardly the first diplomat to raise concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, but when she used the word "dictatorship" in a speech last month she crossed a red line for the kingdom at a time of intense regional turmoil, igniting a diplomatic crisis. The harsh response from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies jolted Stockholm's standing in the Arab world, threatened its Gulf business interests and may have imperiled its bid for a rotating seat at the U.N. Security Council. The crisis also underscored the perils of promoting reform four years after the Arab Spring, particularly in Gulf monarchies that rode out the ensuing unrest by clamping down on dissent.

The dispute began when Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stood in Sweden's parliament Feb. 11 and said the Al Saud family, for which the Gulf nation is named, held "absolute power and presided over a "dictatorship. Days earlier she had described the court-ordered flogging of a Saudi blogger as "medieval.

Wallstrom's comments came four years to the day that Egypt's longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a popular uprising. As similar revolts have engulfed much of the Arab world, the Gulf monarchies have grown even more averse to any talk of democratic reform.

Germany, the U.S. and other close Saudi allies had also spoken out against the flogging of Raif Badawi, who was found guilty of insulting Islam. But only Wallstrom criticized the royal family.

Just five months earlier, ties between the two countries appeared strong. A headline in the Saudi-run Arab News daily proclaimed, "Thank You Sweden, referring to the left-wing government's decision to recognize the state of Palestine and hailing Stockholm's foreign policy as moral and bold.

But Wallstrom says the Saudis responded to her remarks in parliament by blocking her from speaking about Palestine and human rights at the Arab League. Sweden then canceled a memorandum of understanding with Riyadh that helped facilitate Saudi arms purchases -- and the crisis only grew from there.

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing work visas for Swedes. The fraternal monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council deemed Sweden's "interference in Saudi affairs an affront to all of them, and the United Arab Emirates withdrew its own envoy from Stockholm.

The secretary general of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, expressed hope that Sweden would not try and "claim moral authority to pass one- sided judgments and moral categorizations of others.

In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to disobey the king and considered a sin because it could lead to instability. Historically, the king has the final say on state matters, while the powerful clerical establishment's ultraconservative interpretation of Islam is effectively the law of the land.

Newspapers linked to the Saudi government framed Wallstrom's criticism of the kingdom's human rights record as criticism of Islam itself. …

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