Sweden is seeking to quell an unprecedented diplomatic spat over human rights with Saudi Arabia which has seen ambassadors recalled and arms sales cancelled, drawing comparisons with Denmark's Mohammed cartoons controversy.
Stockholm’s relations with Riyadh have nosedived since leftist Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem told parliament in a February speech the oil-rich state was a “dictatorship” that violated women’s rights and whipped bloggers.
As Sweden faces growing criticism from the kingdom’s allies in the Middle East, Wallstroem’s detractors at home wonder whether the government thought through the consequences of denouncing the Gulf powerhouse.
“All this has been badly planned,” Paulina Neuding, editor of the right-leaning political magazine NEO, told AFP.
Sweden’s government announced a “feminist” foreign policy when it took power in September.
Rights groups accuse Saudi Arabia of meting out brutal punishments to dissidents and religious minorities, and excluding women from most areas of public life.
The crisis in relations between Stockholm and Riyadh was cemented earlier this month when Sweden ended an arms agreement with Riyadh, despite warnings from business leaders about the potential impact on exports to the Gulf state, worth about $1.3 billion (1.2 billion euros).
– ‘Moral superpower’ –
A storm of criticism ensued from the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The top religious authority in Saudi Arabia accused Sweden of disrespecting Islam and sharia law, which forms the basis of the Saudi legal system, while the foreign ministry accused Stockholm of “flagrant interference”.
Saudi Arabia blocked a planned speech by Wallstroem at the Arab League, halted business visas for Swedes and recalled its ambassador from Stockholm in protest.
The UAE, a close Saudi ally, also recalled its ambassador.
Wallstroem said her comments — including calling Saudi Arabia’s whipping of dissident blogger Raif Badawi in January “medieval” — were never directed against Islam for which she had “the greatest respect”.
But Neuding said the minister was trying to boost Sweden’s image as a “moral superpower”.
“If you say that Saudi laws are medieval and those are sharia laws then the obvious response is ‘do you have something against Islam?’ And she was not prepared for that,” she said.
Others argue that Wallstroem — who has three decades of political experience, including a decade as European commissioner — has revived the ideological style of assassinated prime minister Olof Palme, famed for his anti-US criticism of the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
“Many asked what a feminist foreign policy would mean in practice and I believe this is an example… (that) we will criticise violations of human rights, of women’s rights,” said Ann-Marie Ekengren, a professor of international politics at Gothenburg University.
– From politics to religion –
Cherif Sayed, Middle East manager at the semi-state trade council Business Sweden, said the controversy has gone from being political to religious.
“What we fear is that it may affect the day-to-day business between Swedish companies and distributors and partners… who highly value Islam and their religion,” he said.
Feeling the heat, Sweden’s government last week held talks with business leaders to discuss concerns over trade with Gulf countries.
Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf also offered the government his help in defusing tensions.
Sayed says the spat is unlikely to spiral into Sweden’s version of Denmark’s Mohammed cartoons crisis in late 2005 and early 2006, which triggered deadly protests, attacks on Danish embassies and an international boycott.
The crisis was sparked by satirical images of the Muslim Prophet published in newspaper Jyllands Posten.
“I wouldn’t say it would go that far as there’s no direct negativity from Sweden towards Islam. It’s more our foreign minister’s choice of words when it comes to sharia law,” he said.
“Now the time has come to approach the Saudis on a political level and have a dialogue about this… We are waiting for that to happen.”
But, viewed from Denmark, the controversy seems strangely familiar and potentially as intractable as the cartoon crisis, according to Bo Lidegaard, editor of Danish daily Politiken.
“The problem is that Saudi Arabia no longer wants to have any dialogue with Margot Wallstroem,” he wrote in an editorial.
“And it has quickly become a bigger problem for her than for the (Saudi) Kingdom.”