Why good relations with Saudi Arabia are important

Writing in business daily Dagens Industri, Maria Rannka and Mikael Wolf, the chief executive and the chairman of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce, note that Stefan Löfven’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia has stirred massive debate as to whether the PM should travel to a country that is far removed from Sweden in terms of values and culture, whether companies should do business in undemocratic countries and whether the PM should travel with business representatives.

Rannka and Wolf stress that it is almost always better to engage in dialogue and trade than to remain silent or call for a boycott.

One could easily believe that Sweden’s trade with Saudi Arabia focuses on defence-related products and services, but a closer look at the statistics shows that this sector accounts for less than 10% of exports in the past five years.

Areas identified as being of specific interest include energy efficiency and sustainability, education and care. Saudi Arabia is an important country in a region with significant challenges and in need of innovation. Rannka and Wolf are convinced Sweden can contribute to a change

Business praises Löfven’s visit to Saudi Arabia

On Saturday prime minister Stefan Löfven travels to Saudi Arabia. In addition to meeting representatives of the Saudi royal family and the country’s foreign minister the prime minister will meet business representatives, including a reception at the Swedish embassy.

Although the visit has been criticised by politicians the business world is praising the visit. Marcus Wallenberg, chair of the Swedish Saudi Business Council, considers the visit an opportunity to anchor the council’s work at the highest political level. Dag Andersson, CEO of the dialysis company Diaverum is also pleased the visit has materialised.

Ali Shakir, trade secretary and country director for Business Sweden, says that the country has previously had unlimited funding but is now working on becoming less oil dependent and is searching for smarter solutions and turning to countries such as Sweden.

Sectra CEO dismisses Wallström’s claim

In an interview with Dagens Industri on Monday, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström claimed that Sweden’s diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia last year did not affect trade with the country.

“That’s not true. It had a devastating effect in the months afterwards, but things are improving now,” says Torbjörn Kronander, CEO of medical IT solutions company Sectra, in Tuesday’s edition of the business daily.

“Orders we believed we would win just disappeared into thin air. We had a much better order intake in Saudi Arabia before this palaver,” he adds.

For example, prior to the row, Sectra had been in talks with the country about initiating a pilot project to screen women for osteoporosis, but afterwards the talks just petered out.

“Highest respect for Islam”

Talking to the newspaper Dagens Nyheter on Saturday, Foreign Minister Margot Wallström said it was regrettable that the Swedish government took so long before deciding to cancel the military co-operation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

The political debate in Sweden about the deal began to heat up in January but it took 40 days of talks before the government announced it was terminating the agreement.

“A lot of other things happened and that also affected the debate. Things also happened in Saudi Arabia, which I believe influenced developments,” she told the paper.

On Friday, Wallström told parliament repeatedly that Sweden wanted to have a continued civil exchange with Saudi Arabia and claimed that the Swedish criticism of the way in which “the regime handles human rights must not be interpreted as an attack on Islam” and that “we have the highest respect for Islam as a religion and its contribution to our common civilisation”.

The minister also admitted she is worried that Sweden is now being portrayed inaccurately. “An incorrect claim is being made that we have attacked Islam as a world religion. We have very many Muslims in Sweden. We evaluate that we can have both an inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue,” she said.

She also told MPs that the government was doing everything in its power to restore relations with Saudi Arabia.

Reactions to diplomatic snub

karin enströmSaudi Arabia’s snub has stirred a reaction from Swedish MPs with Karin Enström, the Moderate Party spokeswoman on foreign policy, placing some of the blame on the Swedish government.

“It’s a serious matter if Sweden’s voice is stopped or weakened. There is a risk of relations getting burned with countries in the region. First of all Margot Wallström was not welcome in Israel and now her speech has been blocked,” Enström said to TT.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven did not wish to comment on Monday, but it is quite clear that Saudi Arabia’s move came as a shock, according to Ulf Bjereld, a professor at the University of Gothenburg.

Valter Mutt, the Green Party spokesman on foreign policy, believes Saudi Arabia’s decision to block Ms Wallström’s speech is “the final nail in the coffin” for the agreement.

The Green Party, the Left Party and the Christian Democrats are all keen for the deal to be torn up, while the Liberal Party is calling for a decision to be taken at Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.

“There is absolutely no reason left to sell arms to such a country. I believe we should seize the opportunity now that this has happened. We might as well cancel the deal straightaway,” Liberal MP Maria Weimer has said.

Click to read articles in Dagens Nyheter and Svenska Dagbladet.


Saudi Arabia recalls ambassador as row deepens

sauditoppSaudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador from Sweden as the diplomatic dispute between the two countries grows. The news emerged a day after Sweden tore up the decade-long arms agreement with Saudi Arabia.

Officially Sweden has said that the Saudi ambassador was summoned to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA) on Tuesday where he was informed that the agreement would be cancelled.

However, Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) reports this morning that the Saudis had received advance information ahead of the Arab League meeting in Cairo that Sweden intended to tear up the agreement. The MFA had apparently told the Swedish Embassy in Riyadh to pass along the news to the Saudi government.

The newspaper has not been able to receive confirmation as to when the meeting took place, or the Saudis’ reaction to the news.

The paper also reports that the Saudis has already informed Sweden that their ambassador was being recalled.

“We took the opportunity to express the hope that the ambassador would soon return and stressed Sweden’s interest in having good relations with Saudi Arabia,” Erik Boman, Margot Wallström’s press secretary tells the TT news agency.

Sweden ends co-operation deal with Saudi Arabia

Peter Hultqvist, the defence minister, said late Tuesday evening that Sweden was cancelling the decade-long military co-operation agreement with Saudi Arabia because “in practice, the military co-operation is not ongoing”. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Sweden had been informed of the decision on Tuesday morning.

The agreement has been subject of intense debate in Sweden in recent weeks with the Green Party, the junior party in the coalition government, wanting to wind it up.

Åsa Romson, deputy prime minister and member of the Green Party, said on hearing the news: “This is a win for a clear foreign policy based on respect for human rights and a moral compass where this type of far-reaching military co-operation agreement simply does not fit”.

The announcement came just after Saudi Arabia had blocked Margot Wallström, the Swedish foreign minister, from speaking about human rights and democracy to a summit of Arab leaders in Cairo. She had also condemned the sentencing of Saudi blogger Raef Badawi to a “medieval” punishment of 1,000 lashes (ed.). On Monday evening, Arab League foreign ministers expressed condemnation and astonishment at Wallström’s remarks, which were incompatible with the fact that “the constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on tolerant Sharia law that has guaranteed human right and preserved people’s lives, possessions, honour and dignity”.

Peter Hultqvist has told Dagens Nyheter (DN) that the events of the past two days have not influenced the government in its decision to cancel the agreement. Asked to assess the possibility of signing new civil contracts with Saudi Arabia after what has happened, he said: “The Ministry of Enterprise and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs have responsibility for these matters. The government has presented to the Saudi ambassador that we want to proceed with the civil partnerships and develop them”. He then added: “As I understand, the foreign minister is prepared to visit Saudi Arabia despite what happened at the Arab League meeting”.

The European Commission said Tuesday it would be taking measures after Margot Wallström’s speech was blocked.

Deal unlikely to be extended

Just hours before Margot Wallström was due to address the Arab League in Cairo on Monday, Saudi Arabia blocked the Swedish Foreign Minister’s plans.

“The explanation we have been given is that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights, and that is why they do not want me to speak,” Ms Wallström told the TT news agency.

The minister has told Swedish public service broadcaster Sveriges Television that she “ does not know if this will have any repercussions for the Swedish military co-operation agreement”. Additionally, it is clear that Saudi Arabia will not support Sweden’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council.

Thord Jansson, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, who is an expert on Saudi Arabia, describes the snub as “exceptional” and suggests that Riyadh probably feels the arms deal will not be extended, following the criticism expressed by some Swedish politicians of the Kingdom and in the media in recent weeks.

“After this it would be odd if Sweden prolonged the deal … Sweden will probably be forced to break off the deal,” he has said.