Island Voices: Lessons Canada can learn from Sweden’s Saudi crisis

Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic rift with Canada parallels what Sweden endured in 2015, but might prove more challenging to resolve.

In late 2014, a newly elected Swedish government presented two major foreign and trade policy initiatives that should sound familiar to Canadians. Foreign Minister Margot Wallström declared that a feminist foreign policy, with its emphasis on human rights, would guide her department’s efforts. Meanwhile, Trade Minister Mikael Damberg was developing a new export and investment attraction strategy aimed at greater diversification toward emerging markets. Saudi Arabia was one of the priority countries.

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In the weeks that followed, Sweden was not alone in criticizing Saudi violations of basic human rights, including the flogging of Raif Badawi in January 2015. But the Saudi reaction to Sweden was singularly harsh. It withdrew its ambassador, stopped providing business visas to Swedes, rallied Arab League members to condemn Sweden, and blocked Wallström from addressing the Arab League on democracy and women’s rights after she had already arrived at its gathering in Cairo.

Saudi Arabia singled out Sweden for several reasons. In criticizing Badawi’s flogging, Wallström described the punishment as “medieval,” which the Saudis claimed was an insult to Sharia law and Islam. Her activism on women’s rights in international fora surely rankled. And, just at that moment, a public debate erupted on whether the Swedish government should renew a military co-operation agreement (training/technical exchanges) with Saudi Arabia.

The debate in parliament and in the media elicited strong reactions to the state of Saudi human rights, tempered somewhat by Swedish industry leaders and others voicing the need to honour agreements and maintain ties. This barrage of criticism was all duly noted in Riyadh. On the heels of Wallström’s Arab League rebuke, Sweden announced it would not renew this agreement.

The Saudis then lashed out. And like Canada, Sweden was perceived to be an easy target.

By comparison, the severe measures against Canada are far more “over the top” than those imposed on Sweden. But this was a real diplomatic crisis for Sweden, and the Swedish government and industry leaders were particularly concerned about potential escalation and the domino effect if Saudi allies followed suit.

Within a week, the Swedish government executed a strategy to help normalize relations. Their approach was to isolate the dispute to the Saudi claim that Wallström’s criticisms were against Islam. Without backing away from human-rights concerns, Wallström clearly stated in parliament that she was not criticizing Islam. The Swedish King had offered to use his ties to the Saudi royal family to smooth relations, and so a senior envoy (a former Speaker) hand-delivered letters from the Swedish king and the prime minister to the Saudi king.

The prime minister indicated that his letter expressed regret if there had been any misunderstanding that Sweden had insulted Islam or the country of Saudi Arabia — underscoring that Sweden desired good relations and constructive bilateral co-operation. It was reported that the king’s letter consisted simply of warm greetings, but coming from a fellow monarch it was particularly well received.

Swedish media knowledgeable about the contents reported that neither letter offered any apology for Wallström’s remarks, a point underscored by Wallström herself in a news conference announcing an end to the diplomatic spat. Nonetheless, the Saudis chose to interpret the delivery and content of the letters as a form of apology, said so publicly and sent their ambassador back to Stockholm.

This rapprochement was bolstered in the following year by an official visit to Saudi Arabia by the Swedish prime minister, who was able to raise human rights concerns directly and privately with his interlocutors, as well as promote trade and other opportunities.

Resolving Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic dispute with Canada will no doubt be more challenging. The kingdom seems more emboldened and even less tolerant of criticism, and lashes out more fiercely with little concern about the impact on its own citizens (witness the Qatar blockade, cutting off all people-to-people ties). Sweden experienced little public solidarity from other governments, even within the EU; this will likely also be Canada’s fate, particularly given the changed political landscape.

Our prime minister and foreign minister have rightly indicated that Canada will not apologize for standing up for basic, universal human rights. If the Swedish experience is anything to go by, any near-term resolution that gets us to a “no-apology rapprochement” will likely require significant diplomatic effort and high-level intervention.

Kenneth Macartney is a former Canadian ambassador to Sweden (2012-2016) and an associate fellow at the Centre for Global Studies at the University of Victoria.

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