Published May 21, 2015
Sweden's foreign minister is hardly the first diplomat to raise concerns about Saudi Arabia's human rights record, but when she used the word "dictatorship" in a speech last month she crossed a red line for the kingdom at a time of intense regional turmoil, igniting a diplomatic crisis.
The harsh response from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies jolted Stockholm's standing in the Arab world, threatened its Gulf business interests and may have imperiled its bid for a rotating seat at the U.N. Security Council. The crisis also underscored the perils of promoting reform four years after the Arab Spring, particularly in Gulf monarchies that rode out the ensuing unrest by clamping down on dissent.
The dispute began when Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stood in Sweden's parliament Feb. 11 and said the Al Saud family, for which the Gulf nation is named, held "absolute power" and presided over a "dictatorship." Days earlier she had described the court-ordered flogging of a Saudi blogger as "medieval."
Wallstrom's comments came four years to the day that Egypt's longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by a popular uprising. As similar revolts have engulfed much of the Arab world, the Gulf monarchies have grown even more averse to any talk of democratic reform.
Germany, the U.S. and other close Saudi allies had also spoken out against the flogging of Raif Badawi, who was found guilty of insulting Islam. But only Wallstrom criticized the royal family.
Just five months earlier, ties between the two countries appeared strong. A headline in the Saudi-run Arab News daily proclaimed, "Thank You Sweden," referring to the left-wing government's decision to recognize the state of Palestine and hailing Stockholm's foreign policy as moral and bold.
But Wallstrom says the Saudis responded to her remarks in parliament by blocking her from speaking about Palestine and human rights at the Arab League. Sweden then canceled a memorandum of understanding with Riyadh that helped facilitate Saudi arms purchases -- and the crisis only grew from there.
Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing work visas for Swedes. The fraternal monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council deemed Sweden's "interference" in Saudi affairs an affront to all of them, and the United Arab Emirates withdrew its own envoy from Stockholm.
The secretary general of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, expressed hope that Sweden would not try and "claim moral authority to pass one-sided judgments and moral categorizations of others."
In Saudi Arabia, it is illegal to disobey the king and considered a sin because it could lead to instability. Historically, the king has the final say on state matters, while the powerful clerical establishment's ultraconservative interpretation of Islam is effectively the law of the land.
Newspapers linked to the Saudi government framed Wallstrom's criticism of the kingdom's human rights record as criticism of Islam itself.
"The whole world must understand that Saudi Arabia will never succumb to any pressure to change the way its judiciary and other organs of state function," columnist Abdullah al-Bargi wrote on the Sabq news website. "This is because Islamic law underpins all these separate and autonomous bodies and entities."
In Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat, an analysis cast Wallstrom's comments as another attempt by the West to implement its "concept of human rights, without any regard for cultural differences."
Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Saudi Arabia's strategy was "to try and bully and intimidate."
"When you take such a stand against a powerful country like Saudi Arabia, there will be political repercussions," he said.
Wallstrom insisted her intent had "never been to insult the country of Saudi Arabia." She told parliament last week Sweden has "the greatest respect for Islam as a world religion and for its contribution to our common civilization."
With pressure mounting, Sweden sent an envoy to Saudi Arabia over the weekend with a letter addressed to King Salman from King Carl XVI Gustaf, a figurehead who rarely plays a role in politics, who stressed his commitment to bilateral ties. The envoy carried a second letter from Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven expressing "deep sorrow and regret" about the crisis in relations.
The backpedaling is in part driven by Swedish fears of losing business in the petroleum-rich Gulf.
More than 30 Swedish corporate leaders, including executives at H&M, Volvo and Ericsson, penned an open letter saying Saudi Arabia was Sweden's "most important trade partner in a growing Middle East." Sweden exports around $1.3 billion worth of goods to Saudi Arabia, the region's largest economy and its biggest military spender.
Saudi Arabia's response, including its apparent willingness to target business ties, has human rights groups worried that the crisis will deter other European nations from speaking out.
"You can't sort of have an 'on' and 'off' button when it comes to human rights," Amnesty International's Elisabeth Lofgren said.
Mark Rhinard, an expert on EU politics at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said many EU officials privately supported Sweden's stance but were waiting to see how forcefully Saudi Arabia responded.
"If it's pretty bad, I don't think it's going to have any traction with EU members," he said, suggesting that the backlash against Sweden could further dissuade European governments from raising the issue of rights in Saudi Arabia.
Wallstrom told The Associated Press last week that she had no plans to apologize, but was "working intensively" through diplomatic channels to restore ties.
"I am not backing down from anything I have said," she repeated over the weekend.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. Associated Press video journalist David Keyton in Stockholm contributed to this report.