Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden on Wednesday in the latest move in an escalating spat between Riyadh and Stockholm. For now, the countries still maintain diplomatic ties, and a spokesperson for Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom has stated that there are no plans to recall the Swedish ambassador to Saudi Arabia at this time.
The rift appears to have been sparked by several high-profile incidents related to human rights issues. The case of Raif Badawi — a Saudi free speech blogger sentenced to imprisonment combined with brutal public floggings — drew international condemnation. Wallstrom herself numbered among the critics, and tweeted in January: “this cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression must be stopped.” Wallstrom has also vocally supported women’s rights in gulf states like Saudi Arabia, in keeping with Sweden’s ultra-liberal reputation. But Riyadh was reportedly unhappy with these criticisms, and allegedly blocked a speech Wallstrom was slated to deliver Monday to the Arab League regarding democracy and human rights.
However it seems that the immediate cause for pulling the ambassador was on Tuesday, when Sweden announced it would not be renewing its decade-long defense deal with the Saudis in light of their repressive policies. The plan was highly controversial in Sweden, whose business leaders clashed with leftist MPs over the ethics of trading with abusive governments. Proponents of continued trade stand to lose plenty from the scrapped deal, which pulled in a reported $567 million for Swedish businesses from 2011-2014. While not negligible, Saudi Arabia seems poised to absorb the loss with relative ease. A recent report found that Saudi Arabia is the world’s top defense importer, spending $6.4 billion a year on foreign arms.
Saudi Arabia no doubt diversified its defense imports in part to protect against diplomatic hurdles, which remain rare even among Western nations. (The U.S. and the U.K. have both weathered criticism for their chumminess with the Saudi regime.) The U.S. receives a particularly hefty slice of the Saudi defense pie — Washington and Riyadh signed a 15-20-year arms deal in 2010 for a sum up to $60 billion. But while missing out on Swedish kronas is unlikely to strong-arm the Saudi kingdom, it does highlight the pull of human rights concerns in Stockholm, versus say London and Washington.