Je Suis Margot Wallström: the silence over Saudi Arabia’s hatred of women and free speech is deafening
Sweden’s feminist foreign minister Margot Wallström should be all over the news. If you value free speech and equal rights you’ll be interested in what she said (or didn’t say) and the reaction to it.
In March, Ms Wallström was scheduled to address the Arab League in Cairo. A friend to the Arabs, Wallström was a leading voice behind Sweden’s decision to become the first Western government to recognise Palestine as a state.
No Arab state complained about Sweden ‘interfering’ in a foreign country’s affairs. Not then. Not until Wallström turned her eye to Saudi Arabia did things become problematic. Her speech, described as “rather anodyne” in the Economist, was never heard. The Arab League banned it. Saudi Arabia intervened. Wallström was disinvited
“The explanation we have received is that Sweden raised the situation with regard to democracy and human rights and that’s why they don’t want me to speak,” said Wallström.
On February 11th, Wallström had told the Swedish parliament that Saudi Arabia was not all that enlightened. She reminded everyone that Saudi women were banned from driving alone, their human rights are violated, the country is a dictatorship and that the “medieval” punishment meted out to Saudi blogger Raef Badawi – he received 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for the cover-all offence of “insulting Islam” – was a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression”.
All true. As Nick Cohen notes, “Margot Wallström is that modern rarity: a left-wing politician who goes where her principles take her.”
But not everyone shares her resolve and clarity of vision. Sweden has an agreement with Saudi Arabia to supply the theocratic dictatorship with weapons. In any diplomatic row it’s always useful to follow the money. The Guardian explains:
Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s fourth biggest export market for arms and defence materials outside the EU, and in 2014 total exports to the kingdom were worth SKr11bn (£900m), according to Dagens Industri, a financial daily. Swedish arms exports to Saudi Arabia peaked at SKr2.9bn in 2011 after the sale of Saab’s Erieye radar system.
The detailed memorandum instructs each party to trade arms, surveillance technology and military expertise, and “establish mutual projects to assemble or manufacture military products in the other party’s country”. Since Saudi Arabia does not produce weapons in Sweden, the agreement was understood by Saudi Arabia as encouraging Swedish arms manufacturers to operate in the kingdom.
She was to return to the theme of Saudi Arabia’s oppression of free speech and women at the Arab League event. But the sensitive Saudis took great offence at her ‘interfering’ in a foreign country’s policies. Their outrage proved to be contagious. The New Yorker reports what then happened:
On March 9th, Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador to Sweden, saying that Wallström had “unacceptably interfered” in the country’s internal affairs. The United Arab Emirates followed suit a week later. Due to Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic wrangling, Wallström was also condemned by the Gulf Cooperation Council (which consists of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E.), The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which includes fifty-seven countries, and the Arab League itself. Finally, Saudi Arabia leveled a more serious charge against Wallström: that by commenting on the punishment of public flogging, the Swedish foreign minister had criticized Sharia law and Islam.
The day after Wallström was supposed to have appeared in Cairo, on March 10th, the government announced its decision not to renew a bilateral arms agreement with Saudi Arabia. No official explanation followed, but the subtext was clear both in Sweden and to Riyadh (which had likely received some advance notice): Saudi Arabia was no longer viewed as an acceptable buyer of Swedish weapons.
Saudi Arabia stopped issuing Swedish business travellers with visas. The Saudis refused to accept four pygmy marmosets monkeys from a Swedish zoo. “They didn’t want the monkeys anymore because of the political situation,” said Skansen zoo manager Jonas Wahlstrom.
Jenny Nordberg makes a point:
Sweden hardly constitutes a threat to anyone, but Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic show of force against the small Scandinavian country may indicate that it would prefer for Wallström’s ideas not to spread beyond Stockholm. As for other countries, they likely will not want to follow Sweden’s example of angering the world’s largest oil exporter and one of the most important players in the Middle East. But there is an obvious double standard in how Western leaders stress the importance of both human rights and women’s rights but mostly fall silent on these issues as soon as immediate economic interests and political alliances are at stake.
Others are less silent:
More than 30 of Sweden’s business elite, including Jacob Wallenberg of Investor, Annika Falkengren of SEB bank, and Stefan Persson of the clothing multinational H&M, signed an open letter calling for the memorandum to be continued. “Sweden’s reputation as a partner in trade and cooperation is at stake,” they wrote.
This is the letter (translated by Google):
Respect the agreement. Trade exchange is an important opportunity to promote human rights and democracy. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, Sweden’s most important trading partner in the Middle East. Breaking trade agreement would jeopardize Sweden’s reputation as a trade and cooperation partner, writes 31 Swedish business representatives.
Sweden’s free trade line has for many decades served Sweden, the Swedish trade and employment well. With a focus on world-class products and solutions, Sweden, even though we are a small economy through international trade built wealth and openness to the world. Sweden and Swedish companies have a high degree of credibility and long-term trade and cooperation. What we say and do mean something in our partner countries.
Sweden has a large number of trade agreements with countries around the world. These agreements are often a prerequisite for our Swedish companies’ opportunities for relationships and business. Now there is intense political debate on one of these agreements, between Saudi Arabia and Sweden.
Sweden is an export-dependent country, one of the most export-dependent countries in the world. Nearly 45 percent of the value of everything produced in Sweden last year was exported. That Sweden succeeds in maintaining and developing this position is crucial for our ability to maintain our welfare. Several countries are major export markets. Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s 18th largest exporting nation and fourth biggest outside Europe. It is our single most important trade partner in the growing Middle East.
In the 1970s and ’80s helped Swedish companies to build Saudi Arabia and beyond, many Swedish companies contributed to the development of the country, including industrial and service companies. Swedish construction industries, telecommunications equipment, machines for the energy and power distribution, automotive, medical equipment, IT services and other services have all helped to modernize the Saudi Arabian infrastructure and social structure. Saudi significant investments are also made in Sweden, particularly in the property sector and the financial sector.
Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Middle East, but also in the world economy. Saudi Arabia is a member of the G20 and ten years is also a full member of the UN trade organization WTO.
Export and establishments in other parts of the world have long been part of the Swedish business success strategy. By competing in the world, our industry has been forced to become more efficient and competitive. Thereby, they have gained market share that promoted employment in Sweden and other countries. Swedish prosperity has grown rapidly as a result of export success in growing international markets. It’s solid support Swedish industry have had free trade and exports in Swedish society has been instrumental in several of our businesses today remains the world leader.
As a company we have a responsibility to ensure that our operations comply with laws and regulations are followed, and that human rights are respected. Saudi society is large and well-known shortcomings regarding human rights, but it is a society in constant flux. State Department’s own report on the situation of human rights in Saudi Arabia illustrates this well, including some progress made.
The core issue is whether we believe that we achieve development, greater openness and prosperity of the people through increased trade and partnerships – or if we believe in insulation and trading halt. For us, the answer is as obvious today as it has been historically. Through international trade, meetings between people, partnerships and collaborations we can increase understanding of each other and to correct deficiencies in the communities. Trade is a fundamental human activity and one of the foundations of our civilization.
Through dialogue and exchange, we can convey understanding and disseminating basic values regarding legal, civil rights and sustainable enterprise. Through business contacts, we have unique interfaces to other communities. Without trade miss Sweden the opportunity to make their voice heard in a globalized world, and to achieve real change. Our company has been operating in Saudi Arabia for many decades.
Now, the question of Sweden’s agreements with Saudi Arabia unilaterally terminated as a reaction to the lack of human rights for the Saudi population. We believe that it would be the wrong way to go. Given that we know the trade impact on social development and we know that dialogue and the strengthening of relations is a positive force, it would be a step in the wrong direction to terminate the contract. For Swedish industry’s part, it can also have major consequences. Sweden is an attractive partner is nothing we can take for granted. It is based on that we are a credible long-term party. Our actions in a country, a region or an industry echoes in other countries, regions and industries. In that sense we Agreement between Saudi Arabia and Sweden not only about defense. It will have repercussions for Swedish companies operating in the country and most probably also for Swedish companies in other countries.
Sweden’s reputation as a trade and cooperation partner is at stake. We therefore expect that the government handles the issue of Sweden’s continued cooperation with Saudi Arabia in terms of Sweden and the Swedish business’s long-term international credibility. Instead of suspending cooperation, the focus should instead be on dialogue and talks on an extension or possible changes, taking into account both sides’ common interests. Sweden will develop as exporting nation, respect for signed contracts safeguarded. The basic Swedish position has been and should remain that trade is an important tool to promote human rights and democracy. A careless handling of contractual agreements may risk jeopardizing this tradition.
Dag Andersson, CEO Diaverum
Carl Bennet, Chairman Carl Bennet
AB, Gunnar Brock, Chairman of Stora Enso
Christian Clausen, CEO of Nordea
Danielson, CEO, SKF
Börje Ekholm, CEO of Investor
Annika Falkengren, CEO SEB
Faxander, CEO Sandvik
Leif Johansson, President of Ericsson
Johnstone , incoming chairman. Husqvarna
Carola Lemne, CEO of Swedish Enterprise Ronnie Leten, CEO of the Atlas Copco Martin Lundstedt, CEO of Scania Keith McLoughlin, CEO of Electrolux Anders Narvinger Anders Nyrén, CEO of Industrivärden Stefan Persson, chairman of H & M Olof Persson, President of Volvo Lars Renström, CEO of the Alfa Laval Cristina Stenbeck, Chairman Kinnevik Hans Stråberg, President of Atlas Copco Karl Henrik Sundström, CEO of Stora Enso Carl-Henric Svanberg, President of Volvo Johan Söderström, CEO of ABB Sweden, Michael Treschow Björn Wahlroos, chairman of Nordea Jacob Wallenberg, chairman of Investor Lars Wedenborn, CEO of FAM Hans Vestberg, CEO of Ericsson, Lars Westerberg, Chairman of Husqvarna Leif Östling, President SKF
Nick Cohen is aghast:
As the theocratic kingdom prevents women from travelling, conducting official business or marrying without the permission of male guardians, and as girls can be forced into child marriages where they are effectively raped by old men, she was telling no more than the truth….
The Wallström non-affair tells us three things. It is easier to instruct small countries such as Sweden and Israel on what they can and cannot do than America, China or a Saudi Arabia that can call on global Muslim support when criticised. Second, a Europe that is getting older and poorer is starting to find that moral stands in foreign policy are luxuries it can no longer afford. Saudi Arabia has been confident throughout that Sweden needs its money more than it needs Swedish imports.
Finally, and most revealingly in my opinion, the non-affair shows us that the rights of women always come last. To be sure, there are Twitter storms about sexist men and media feeding frenzies whenever a public figure uses ‘inappropriate language’. But when a politician tries to campaign for the rights of women suffering under a brutally misogynistic clerical culture she isn’t cheered on but met with an embarrassed and hugely revealing silence.
Here is the speech by Foreign Minister Ms Wallström that was stopped by Saudi Arabia:
There is nothing in the speech that you have not already heard or to mention any specific country. Had the number is not preceded by discussion of the agreement I do not think it had caused any problems, says Thord Janson, Saudi connoisseur of Gothenburg.
It was when contents became known as Saudi Arabia no longer wanted to Margot Wallström, would participate in the meeting of the Arab League, where she was invited as guest of honor.
Read more: Wallström’s speech to the Arab League is set.
According to Wallström halted century due to losses of democracy and women’s rights.
Thord Janson believe instead that Saudi Arabia’s behavior towards Ms Wallström associated with the media image of the country that has been going on for some time in Sweden on military weapons agreement. Saudi Arabia is described as women’s oppressive and undemocratic, which has made one feel irritated and offended.
– You are aware of the tone in Sweden and that it has already said that it does not prolong the contract or that Saudi Arabia considers it to be short and therefore is clearly annoyed, says Thord Janson.
Neither the lines that take up the position of women may have angered Saudi Arabia to stop speech, he believes. However, the differences in approach between countries vast. From Saudi horizon is one not to understand the Swedish criticism of their society that sharia law and outdated punishment.
– Saudi Arabia sign and say they respect human rights but removed define certain things, for example, that you do not treat the genders equally. They say that they are with everything, but not for women who are minors.
Why choose to act now if the protest is really concerned with weapons agreement?
– It is difficult to know. Saudi Arabia will not communicate why you are doing as they do. You also do not know if they were informed before Sweden would come to the meeting. They may have found out about it afterwards and not wished that Sweden would bask in their glory, says Thord Janson.
This is Foreign Minister Wallström’s planned speech at the Arab League Foreign Ministers meeting of the government website:
“Cairo, Egypt, March 9, 2015
Secretary General, excellencies, dear friends,
It is a great honor for me to be standing here today. To be here in Egypt, in Cairo, in this building – the House of Arabs, is special. Egypt HAS always played an indispensable political, economic and cultural role in the region. And it is here That the Arab World, Africa and Europe meet.
I wish to express my sincere gratitude to the Secretary General for inviting me to address this meeting. Your invitation is proof of the excellent relationship between the League of Arab States and Sweden – a longstanding relationship built on respect and commitment to serve the interests of the States and peoples That we Represent, also in times of huge challenges.
In 1933, a time of crisis and depression for Europe as well as for the Arab world, a young Tunisian poet wrote about “The Will to Live”:
“Those without passion to climb up the mountains,
must live forever Among Holes in the ground ”
I have always been inspired by the passion and energy that i see in the many bright and highly motivated young people That I meet during my trips, especially in this region.
It is our responsibility, as leaders of our respectively the communities, to sacrifice young members of our population the Means to fulfil Their dreams and the Possibility to live Their lives in freedom, peace and security.
The League of Arab States is a key partner for Sweden, as are your members. I highly appreciate the Accreditation to the League of Our Ambassador in March 2012.
The Swedish Government will put Increased emphasis on the Southern leg of the European Neighbourhood Policy That is beingdeveloped. North Africa and the Middle East are our neighbors and we will work together with the EU partners, and with you to make this shared region prosperous and peaceful.
Our destinies and paths are intertwined, through geographical proximity, history, economy and family ties. One fifth of all Swedes have a background outside the borders of Sweden. We have for example a large Iraqi diaspora – close to 2 per cent of our population – that is a vibrant part of our society.
Sweden is overpriced Extending a hand in Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance throughout the region. Palestine, of course, is a case in point. So are Those Affected by Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere.
We have in relative terms received more asylum seekers from Syria than any other Western country – Approximately 65,000 in the last three years. Yet, of course, this is nothing Compared to many of your countries. I especially admire the Responsible approach of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey towards Syrians fleeing the war. Efforts of others are equally important.
As you are all well aware of, as the first EU member state, Sweden Recently Decided to Recognise the State of Palestine. The Swedish government took this decision with joy and pride.
Our decision to Recognise Palestine fully comp lies with international law. It is a natural step to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to self-determination. The hardwork of the Palestinian Government, state-building and Reforms have made Palestine ready to perform the Duties of a state.
The recognition AIMS at making the parties of the conflict less unequal. IT AIMS at Supporting moderate actors In Both Palestine and Israel. And it AIMS to Provide a positive injection to the Middle East Peace Process.
Some say our recognition was premature. I say it May havebeen too late.
Young women and men in bothering Palestine and Israel are about to lose hope. They need to see thatthere is an alternative to violence, to a depressing status quo and to a Continuously negative development on the ground.
I am heartened by the fact That our step is inspiring a renewed debate in Europe and beyond on what the international community can do to Provide them with preciously needed hope.
We are very Concerned to see how the economy of Palestine is being squeezed from Several ends. Jointly with other EU member states we will do our utmost to try to alleviate the burden and to convince Israel to change its actions, in Particular to fulfil Their legal obligations to transfer Palestinian money to the Palestinians.
And we will work hard, with other members of the EU and the international community, and with you, to do what we can to bring the peace process back on track and to arrive soon at a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side by-side in peace and security.
Together we face growing extremism and radicalization. ISIL or Da’esh perform the count in the extreme. We need to work together to fight this scourge, to identify and deal with its root causes and to do this while paying full respect to human rights and international law.
I wish to express Sweden’s solidarity with all innocent victims, in so many of the Member States of the League of Arab States, thats every month, every week, every day – suffer from the brutal violence That Da’esh and other terrorist organization create.
Terrorism and foreign terrorist fighters Illustrate That the problems we are facing have no boundaries. International cooperation is Crucial while we still need to address These issues in parallel on local and national levels. Tirelessly.
Democracy, Security and economic development are interrelated. Without progress in One of These fields, sustainable results in the other can not be expected.
Inclusive socio-economic development of ice Particularly important. Educational and economic empowerment is the best antidote to radicalization and terrorist recruitment.
Employment is Crucial, especially for our youth. Youth unemployment is a key challenge, in Europe and in this region.
Human rights are a priority in Swedish foreign policy. Freedom of association, assembly, religion and expression are not only fundamental rights and important tools in the creation of vibrant societies. They are indispensable in the fight against extremism and radicalization. So is a vibrant civil society.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day. This is a day to celebrate women’s achievements, Recognise challenges, and focus attention on women’s rights, women’s representation and Their adequate resources. Our experience Is that a women’s rights do not only benefit women, but society as a whole.
More than 20 years ago, in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development met here in Cairo to DISCUSS various issues, including education of women and protection of women from all forms of violence, including female genital mutilation and sexual harassment. Many of These issues are still very much in play today and I urge you to Contribute to upholding the agreements made here in Cairo 20 years ago.
Many of you here today have the privilege of representing large young population. They are a valuable asset. It is for Their sake, and Their children’s sake, That All Our Efforts Must Be Concentrated.
Many of them were not born 15 years ago When my predecessor and friend Anna Lindh came to inaugurate the Swedish Institute of Alexandria together with you, the Secretary-General, in your previous capacity of Foreign Minister of Egypt. Let me invite you to commemorate Anna Lindh and celebrate 15 years of the Institute this autumn. It will be a great opportunity to Strengthen our ties and make use of this unique platform for dialogue and instruments to dispel the dangerous ignorance.
Let us together break the negative spiral of war, conflict and terrorism into a movement towards democracy, respect for human rights and socio-economic development. We have to continue to create hope.
Thank you. Shukran.
Foreign Minister Wallström “
“It’s time to become a little braver in foreign policy,” says Wallström. “Does anyone seriously mean that Sweden should apologize for what we say about democracy and human rights? We’re not backing down from that.”