There has been a stir in the media over the past few days about the increasingly tense relationship between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. Anyone who pays even remote attention to world affairs is familiar with the fact that Saudi Arabia has an atrocious human rights record, and it appears that the Swedes have had enough.
The spat came on the heels of Saudi Arabia’s decision to block Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström “from speaking about democracy and women’s rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo.”
Sweden decided to take a stand by cancelling their “defense cooperation agreement,” which means ceasing to sell arms, and ceasing to cooperate regarding intelligence and surveillance issues.
Saudi Arabia has since recalled their ambassador and labeled Sweden’s (accurate) comments about their human rights record and in particular their treatment of women and dissidents “irresponsible and unacceptable.”
To be clear, this decision by Sweden was by no means an easy one.
According to The Independent,
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.
Saudi Arabia is also, of course, an incredibly valuable source of oil located in an advantageous area, particularly for the UK and the United States. “America is addicted to oil,” in the words of George W. Bush, and this addiction, needless to say, comes at a tremendous, incalculable cost.
David Wearing, writing for The Guardian, observes that the UK “holds its nose and sells arms to the Saudis because it needs to keep the world’s leading oil supplier on side, and because jobs (a political code word for corporate profits) depend on the trade continuing.” This observation is certainly true for the United States, as well.
“But,” Wearing continues, “this is an incomplete and rather self-serving way of looking at things.” Indeed.
The title of Wearing’s piece in The Guardian is titled “Sweden’s stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Why can’t the UK follow suit?”, and this important question should certainly be posed to the United States as well.
Is the United States willing to put people over profit and finally take a stand, in deed not just in rhetoric, for human rights, even if it means breaking the long-standing taboo on criticizing a country (and long-time ally) with a horrendous human rights record?
Withdrawing support is no guarantee of reform within Saudi Arabia, but it is a significant way to stop feeding the problem, and to stop strengthening those in power blocking any whiff of a popular uprising.
Adam Google writes for Human Rights Watch,
The least surprising aspect of the recent diplomatic dust-up between Sweden and Saudi Arabia is the Kingdom’s typically thin-skinned response to anyone calling them out over their atrocious human rights record. What is surprising is Sweden’s resolve not to roll over, as so many other countries have done. In this, Sweden sets an example for all.
While the United States merely feigns concern for human rights, Sweden has taken action, action that will undoubtedly have an affect on their wallet. But, again, the question comes down to which is more important, people or profit?
Sweden chose the former in this case. Will the Western superpowers follow suit?