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.
It all started when Saudi Arabia blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström from giving a scheduled speech at the Arab League. Recent statements by Wallström on Saudi human rights abuses rankled the government in Riyadh, particularly her comments on the case of Raif Badawi, a well-known liberal Saudi blogger. In 2014, a Saudi court sentenced Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for allegedly insulting Islam and religious authorities via his website and on social media.
Sweden responded by announcing on March 10 that it wouldn’t be renewing a defense cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, lucrative as it has been for Sweden. In a tit-for-tat move the next day, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm, characterizing Wallström’s comments as “a blatant intervention in [Saudi Arabia’s] internal affairs.”
Saudi Arabia’s move to silence criticism of its rights record is nothing new. Saudi authorities seek to halt all domestic criticism by harassing, intimidating, and jailing those who dare to call for respect for basic rights. Saudi diplomats also seek to limit criticism at international forums, including the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council, to which other states elected Saudi Arabia in 2013.
The real cause for surprise and applause amid this diplomatic spat is Sweden’s decision to publicly stand up for human rights in Saudi Arabia, despite the trade and economic costs. This is a step that most Western countries have repeatedly shown themselves unwilling to take. Maybe now they will copy it. Sweden’s stand serves as an important example to other governments that claim to support human rights in their foreign policies but are meekly acquiescent in the face of Saudi rights abuses. And it sends Saudi Arabia a strong message that it cannot abuse the rights of its citizens with impunity. Such a move may not produce concrete improvements in the short term, but if other countries follow Sweden’s lead Saudi Arabia will come to understand that it can no longer intimidate its critics into silence.