For decades, the ringing statements on human rights by various European and US governments have been undermined by the diplomatic support they’ve given to the regime in Saudi Arabia. It has been a straight forward deal : we will sell arms to the House of Saud and turn a blind eye to its barbaric public executions, floggings, religious extremism and suppression of women. In return, the Saudis will (a) give us cheap oil and (a) police the region on our behalf.
That cosy arrangement has been unraveling somewhat, of late. Last year, the German government refused to sell Leopard tanks to the Saudis and – more significantly – the new left wing government in Sweden has just decided not to renew a ten year old arms deal that has been worth half a billion dollars to Sweden between 2011 and 2014 alone. The Saudis are very big customers. From the Swedes, they’ve been buying airborne radar units and ground-based anti-tank systems. Overall, the Saudis are the world’s biggest arms importers, have the world’s fourth-largest defence budget, and their appetite for arms imports is growing at a rate of 2% a year. No doubt, other countries will be willing to step in and sell them the weaponry they’re shopping for :
In 2014…. the U.S. filled $8.4 billion worth of orders from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, compared with $6 billion in 2013.
The Saudis however, have found this new arms embargo by Germany and Sweden to be highly embarrassing and very threatening to their long term diplomatic position.
Saudi Arabia’s furious reaction to Sweden’s announcement is perhaps representative of their fear that other countries will reach the same conclusion. In addition to recalling its ambassador, Riyadh at the last minute blocked a planned Monday address by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström before the Arab League in which she planned to speak out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
Not surprisingly, the Swedish government was also coming under intense pressure at home over whether it should – or shouldn’t – renew the arms deal. As Foreign Policy says:
Though it was negotiated and signed by the previous Social Democrat government, the idea of renewing the agreement — set to expire in May — generated intense opposition from several influential factions in Swedish politics. The Greens, minority partners in the current coalition, were fully against it. The Social Democrats’ influential youth organization also did not want to see the agreement extended, as did several centrist parties and the socialists. On the other side of the debate was Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who hoped to renegotiate the agreement and prevent Sweden’s defence industry from taking a major financial hit
Dutifully, the Swedish business lobbies had swung into line behind the wavering Prime Minister:
In Sweden, 31 business leaders, including the heads of Volvo, Electrolux, H&M, Ericsson and other TOP/ companies, argued in an open letter published by the daily Dagens Nyheter last week that cancelling the Saudi deal would undermine Sweden’s reputation as a reliable trading partner and damage the country’s ability to use trade as a foreign policy tool.
Ultimately, the Saudis seem to have scored an own goal by trying to bully Sweden into compliance. Once the Saudis used their clout to cancel the Arab League speaking invitation to the Swedish Foreign Minister, the Swedish PM really had no choice but to cancel the arms deal, in retaliation. The interesting development in both Germany and Sweden, is that domestic action on human rights has made business-as-usual nio longer tenable.
Should things have ever needed to come to this? No, not really. Since 2005, the EU has had a “Common Position” pact that bans arms deals to known human rights violators, which should have outlawed Europe’s weapons trade with Saudi Arabia long ago. However, as Bloomberg News has pointed out, this worthy document contains an escape clause. Due weight must also be given to the behaviour of the buyer country “with regard to the international community, in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and its respect for international law.” Meaning: if you’re on our team and “the nature of the alliance’ means you supply us with cheap oil… then what’s a few floggings and beheadings through an excess of religious zeal, among friends?
On Her Majesty’s Public Service
For anyone wishing to relive their finest Womad moments, here are a few choice tracks by the British band Public Service Broadcasting. This duo combine the found footage of some truly astonishing old public service films with their own deliberately retro 70/80s synths and percussion (not to mention their faux BBC formal English stage announcements) to create a series of layers of dislocation.