Saudi Arabia announced Thursday that it would no longer issue business visas to Swedish nationals or renew the visas of those residing in the country, amid diplomatic spat over a Swedish official’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.
An anonymous Saudi official told the Associated Press that the decision was taken in response to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s history on human rights. After her comments, Saudi Arabia blocked a speech Wallstrom was due to make at an Arab League meeting, and Sweden canceled a defense agreement between the two countries.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have also recalled their ambassadors to Sweden over Wallstrom’s statements. "The statements violate the principle of sovereignty upon which the normal relations between countries are based," UAE's Foreign Minister Anwar bin Mohammed Gargash said, Deutsche Welle reported. He added that her remarks were "deemed interference in internal affairs as they do not respect the religious and cultural peculiarities of states and communities."
Sweden’s relations with other Arab nations have also chilled since Wallstrom spoke out in favor of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for political dissent on his website "Free Saudi Liberals."
"This cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression has to be stopped," Wallstrom had tweeted in January.
The organization of Islamic Cooperation, a regional group of 57 Muslim nations, condemned Wallstrom in a statement last week, in which the countries “stressed that the world community, with its multiple cultures, diverse social norms, rich and varied ethical standards and different institutional structures, can not, and should not, be based on a single and centric perspective that seeks to remake the world in its own image.”
Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told reporters on Thursday that his government is moving to normalize relations between the two countries. “This is clearly not a good situation. ... We don’t want this situation with Saudi Arabia, we want good relations with Saudi Arabia,” he said, the Wall Street Journal reported.
The move was also criticized at home by a group of 31 Swedish business leaders, including the heads of H&M, Volvo and Ericsson, who published a letter in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, asking that the defense contract be retained. “Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s eighteenth largest export nation and the fourth largest outside Europe. It is our single-most important trade partner in a growing Middle East,” they wrote, according to Sveriges Radio. Last year, Swedish exports of all goods to Saudi Arabia totaled $1.3 billion in value.
Saudi Arabia, which is set to surpass India as the world’s largest arms importer in 2015, will account about 14 percent of all defense import expenditures this year, reaching a total of $9.8 billion, according to the consulting firm IHS.
Sweden, despite its international reputation as a peaceful nation, is one of the world’s top arms exporters, and also one of the fastest growing, selling 200 percent more between 2008 and 2012 than between 1993 and 1997, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Saudi Arabia was also one of Sweden’s top customers.
Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights is widely condemned abroad, which the Arab nation defends as being based upon principles of sharia law. Freedom House, a U.S.-based pro-rights watchdog, rates Saudi Arabia as “not free” and gives it the lowest possible score in its evaluation.