Sweden's foreign minister accused Saudi Arabia of blocking a planned address at an Arab League meeting because of her criticism of the kingdom's human rights record. The revelation puts an arms deal in doubt and comes at a time when questions are being raised about Western relationships with the kingdom due to allegations of human rights abuses.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem was invited to the Arab League meeting as an honorary guest after Sweden became the first European Union member to recognize the state of Palestine last October. In an embarrassing snub, however, her speech was cancelled.
"Last night, we were told that Saudi Arabia had blocked Margot's participation," the foreign minister's press spokesman Erik Boman said, according to Reuters.
"The explanation we have been given is that Sweden has highlighted the situation for democracy and human rights and that is why they [Saudi Arabia] do not want me to speak," Wallstroem told a Swedish news agency, according to AFP. "It's a shame that a country has blocked my participation."
Wallstroem is a proponent of what she describes as "feminist foreign policy" and has prioritized improving women's rights, representation and access to resources. This may not sit well with the oil-rich monarchy, however, where women are not allowed to drive and require a male guardian's permission in order to travel or work.
Organizations like Amnesty International regularly criticize Saudi Arabia for what they say is a miserable human rights record, including the arrest, trial and punishment of dissidents and human rights defenders. In January, a Saudi court sentenced blogger Raef Badawi to 1,000 lashes and a 10-year prison sentence on charges of insulting Islam. On the day the Badawi received the first 100 lashes, Wallstroem Tweeted her own criticism.
Blogger Raif Badawi was flogged today in Saudi Arabia. This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped.— Margot Wallström (@margotwallstrom) January 9, 2015
Saudi Arabia's justice system is based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law, and punishments include public beheading, as seen in a video leaked by activists in January of a woman being decapitated with a sword. Authorities executed more than 80 people in 2014. Most were beheaded.
Nevertheless, Wallstroem's planned speech would not have mentioned Saudi Arabia or any other country specifically, according to a text released by the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
In it, Wallstroem speaks about the relationship between Sweden and the Arab states, then goes on to stress that human rights are a foreign policy priority for Sweden. "Freedom of association, assembly, religion and expression are... fundamental rights and important tools in the creation of vibrant societies," the text says.
Later in the speech, which would have taken place 24 hours after International Women's Day, she adds that women's achievements should be celebrated and that there should be a renewed focus on women's rights issues. "Our experience," the text says, "is that women's rights do not only benefit women, but society as a whole."
Saudi Arabia is a key non-European Union export market for Sweden. The two countries have a military memorandum of understanding that has been in place for a decade and is up for renewal in May. It promotes the trade of arms and military equipment and essentially encourages Swedish arms firms to operate in Saudi Arabia.
The memorandum has proven controversial within Sweden's ruling parliamentary coalition. The Green Party is categorically opposed, but Wallstroem's Social Democrats are split. Some have criticized it, but others, including Wallstroem, backs the the treaty.
In an open letter published on Friday, representatives from 31 of the Sweden's biggest businesses, including the CEOs and chairs of H&M, Volvo and Ericsson, urged that the treaty be renewed with what they described as "our single-most important trade partner in a growing Middle East," according to local media.
This may now prove difficult after the embarrassing veto at the Arab League.
However, it highlights similar dilemmas faced by other countries in recent months. Saudi Arabia purchases billions of dollars in weapons from other European countries, including the UK and France. Moreover, it is the world's largest oil producer.
Meanwhile, the kingdom's relative stability has become more important as conflict has destabilized several Arab countries, including Saudi neighbors Iraq and Yemen, and violent extremist groups, like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have proliferated. Saudi Arabia has also allied with the US on regional issues, like countering Iran's ambitions.
Despite repeated condemnations of Saudi Arabia's human rights record, economic and security alliances have traditionally taken priority and it has been exempted from harsh criticism. This may be changing, however. Topics such as women's rights issues and Badawi's case are less easy to ignore in a more transparent, connected world.
Moreover, some of the points which have caused longstanding Western deference to Saudi Arabia may be becoming less valued. The kingdom's oil producing status is still important, but American production could increase to the point where it is a net exporter. And the rise of non-Middle-Eastern supplies and alternative energy sources may further reduce reliance on Saudi oil.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck