Last updated: 29 March, 2012

Swedish defence minister quits amid Saudi arms scandal

Swedish Defence Minister Sten Tolgfors resigned Thursday after weeks of controversy over revelations Sweden planned to help Saudi Arabia build an arms factory, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said.

“I have today, upon request from Sten Tolgfors, decided to relieve him (of his duties),” the head of Sweden’s centre-right government told a news conference, hailing the departing minister for his five years on the job.

Reinfeldt stressed that Tolgfors had begun hinting months ago he wanted to leave soon, but acknowledged that media focus on the ongoing scandal had hastened his exit.

“The probe and the questions around this issue will continue… and that is of course a good thing,” Reinfeldt said, adding that Tolgfors would maintain his seat in parliament while Infrastructure Minister Catharina Elmsaeter-Svaerd would temporarily take over the defence portfolio.

Earlier this month public broadcaster Swedish Radio said the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI) had secret plans since 2007 to help Saudi Arabia build a plant for the production of anti-tank weapons.

The radio said part of the so-called Project Simoom involved the creation of a shell company called SSTI to handle dealings with Saudi Arabia, in order to avoid any direct links to FOI and the government.

FOI director general Jan-Olof Lind said last week he had reported “a suspected crime” following an internal review, and Swedish prosecutor Agneta Hilding Qvarnstroem opened a preliminary investigation into the affair.

Sweden has in the past sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, but classified government documents state that Project Simoom “pushes the boundaries of what is possible for a Swedish authority,” the radio said when it broke the story on March 6.

The story has dominated Swedish headlines since then, with numerous politicians and public figures critical of Sweden’s plans to provide weapons help to a country they describe as a “dictatorship,” and calls for Tolgfors to resign.

Under pressure to come clean, Tolgfors admitted on March 9 he knew of FOI’s plans to help Riyadh build the factory and of the shell company, but has stressed that no Swedish laws had been broken — something he also reiterated Thursday.

“When it comes to the past weeks’ debate on Saudi Arabia, I have nothing more to add,” Tolgfors told the news conference.

The 45-year-old father of two young children insisted he had already planned to resign, among other things for family reasons, but that “media attention in recent weeks has facilitated and accelerated my decision.”

“I had planned to leave in a few months but it came now instead,” he said.

Opposition parties were quick Thursday to hail Tolgfors’s exit.

“I expect that Sten Tolgfors despite his resignation will take part in questioning by parliament’s constitutional committee to help cast light on what has happened,” Urban Ahlin, a spokesman for the main opposition Social Democrats, told the TT news agency.

Last year, Sweden exported defence material worth a total of 13.9 billion kronor ($2.05 billion, 1.56 billion euros), and Saudi Arabia was the second-biggest buyer, according to TT.