If Sweden’s foreign minister was previously little known to leaders in the Muslim world, that no longer is the case.
Unlike most government representatives around the world, Sweden’s self-proclaimed feminist human-rights activist, Margot Wallstrom, recently had the audacity to openly criticize the Saudi authorities for their subjugation of women in Saudi Arabia and their recent trial of human-rights advocate Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 public lashings for criticizing Saudi clerics.
To further infuriate Saudi authorities, Quebec’s Immigration Minister Kathleen Weil said Wednesday that her province also would continue to champion Badawi’s release from prison — his wife and children fled Saudi Arabia to Quebec in 2013 — and Quebec’s politicians in February unanimously adopted a resolution calling for his immediate release.
Unaccustomed to such blunt public criticism from a Swedish foreign minister, the Saudi authorities angrily denounced her, recalled their ambassador and announced an immediate travel ban on Swedes, including business representatives.
The Saudis also orchestrated a blistering statement from foreign ministers of the Arab League, which condemned the Swedish foreign minister’s statement as “incompatible with the fact that the constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia law.”
Put succinctly, Wallstrom was being told that neither the Saudi authorities under their new king nor his fellow Muslim leaders would tolerate such criticism of sacrosanct policies ostensibly unchanged since the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632.
In effect, the Saudis were once again informing the non-Muslim world that they were not subject to the same universal human rights commitments granted all people under the United Nations charter.
(In fact, Saudi Arabia has never signed the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)
The uncompromising Saudi rejection of any criticism of its human-rights policies by other governments was not surprising. When any country has had the audacity to publicly criticize or even question the lack of democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia (or elsewhere in the Muslim world), there has been an immediate negative reaction and, in the case of Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states, a threat of economic retaliation.
After the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War between the West, led by the U.S., and the Communist bloc, led by Moscow, maintaining the goodwill of the oil-exporting countries of the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, was seen as a major priority, notwithstanding the region’s lack of democracy and flagrant human-rights violations. (Even today, many in the Western world justify such lack of criticism by pointing to the massive bloodshed and chaos that has followed the overthrow of Middle East dictators such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.)
The tolerant approach to lack of democracy and respect for human rights in the Middle East, including the rights of women, allowed authoritarian regimes in the Middle East to maintain an iron grip on power. They have been generally supported by Muslim religious leaders, whose own well-being was advanced and assured by their continued support for the region’s strongmen and outright despots.
The Saud grip on power was cemented in 1932, thanks to an arrangement between the Saud family and the followers of Wahhabism, a strict form of the Muslim religion in which females played a highly restricted role and were submissive to males within both their homes and society in general.
The lack of democracy and fundamental human rights under the Saudi ruling family began to slowly weaken only in recent years because Saudi society itself was slowly evolving, both economically and socially. Increasing numbers of young Saudis are better educated; significant numbers are being allowed to study abroad, especially in Western democracies whose governments backed the continued oppressive rule of the Saud dynasty.
Paradoxically, one of those better-educated Saudis, Osama Bin Laden, a religious extremist, did more to challenge the existing authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and their links with the West than any other person.
And now, a few short years following his killing by the U.S., Bin Laden’s followers and other religious extremists are threatening the rule of many Middle East states, including Saudi Arabia’s very existence.
Harry Sterling, a former diplomat, is an Ottawa-based commentator.