Sweden decided to end its arms deal with the ultraconservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia after Saudi diplomats exercised pressure to obstruct the Swedish foreign minister’s speech on human rights issues at the Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Cairo, Egypt on March 9, 2015.
Had the speech taken place, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström would have highlighted the significance of human rights issues as a priority of the Swedish foreign policy in combating extremism in the Middle East.
Saudis were particularly concerned about addressing the case of the Saudi liberal activist Raif Badawy who has been sentenced 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for charges of insulting Islam. Wallström was known for her great concern over this particular case — in early 2015 she tweeted denouncing the cruel sentence over Badawy saying, “This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped.” Arab foreign ministers quickly defended the Saudi position and expressed their “condemnation and astonishment” in a statement denouncing the Swedish minister’s position.
As the diplomatic quarrel deepens, Sweden decided to tear up its arms deal with Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest arms importer and Sweden’s third biggest market of arms outside the EU. As a result, the Saudis quickly recalled their ambassador to Sweden in objection to Swedish decisions.
Sweden was obviously, and understandably, upset at the Saudis and therefore decided to react in a reciprocal manner by terminating arms trade with Saudi Arabia. But what is also obvious is that the Saudi violations of human rights didn’t just appear in March 2015! Those violations have been there for decades during which Sweden was supplying arms to Saudi Arabia. That simply means that canceling weapons trade came as a result of the diplomatic row — no speech, no weapons — and is not related the Saudi records of human rights.
Sweden must be aware that its international reputation is on the line. Sweden, which just celebrated 200 years of peace in 2014 and has been known to be a prime non-NATO human rights defender and regional peacemaker, is shockingly the third largest weapons exporter per capita in the world. Thailand, Burma, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are among its most important clients; countries that are either involved in direct armed conflicts or their human rights records are swollen with major violations. Yet, Sweden still sells them its advanced military hardware.
The above givens connote a double-faced doctrine. On one hand, Sweden gives money, aid, educational programs and training opportunities to empower and enhance human rights protection in developing countries while on the other hand it equips dictators ruling the same countries with advanced military hardware that could be used to oppress and arrest those who work hard in those countries to improve human conditions!
The behavior of Saudi Arabia did not surprise me for a second. It is a country that has never been a democratic state and never proclaimed itself to be. The country is governed by the restrictive Islamic Sharia laws where democracy as a concept and practice is largely demonized by the vast majority of its influential religious clerks. Thus, when the Saudi reject any critics from the Swedish government and work hard to block a speech, this doesn’t astonish me. But what surprises some people, including myself, is to see Sweden — the land of peace — act in contradiction with the values and principles that it has long been supporting. It is good that Sweden has finally come to a conclusion to stop military trade with one totalitarian regime, but the Swedes just ruined this good decision by basing it on the diplomatic crisis rather than the poor human rights records of Saudi Arabia.
This letter doesn’t defend the Saudi position in any means, but it does criticize the approach of the Swedish government that can easily be seen as a "double standard." Many peaceful protesters in the "Arab Spring" have lost their lives being shot by western made weapons — Swedish gear included — that were supplied to dictators who ruled the region for decades. Therefore, the more Sweden goes with supplying arms to zones of conflict/poor human rights protections, the more its international credibility will be subject to damage.

Submitted by Abdallah Hendawy
Abdallah Hendawy, a recent recipient of the Honor Award of the U.S. State Department's mission on Egypt 2014- 2015, is an Egyptian activist. For over 10 years, he has been working for several political entities in and outside Egypt focusing on the Middle East and North Africa region.Hendawy is currently pursuing a PhD in Political Sociology. He also holds an MA in Conflict Transformation.


Select facts about Sweden's arms exports: Facts on Sweden's arms exports