Friday, March 20, 2015

20-Mar-15: A peek into how Middle East politics work in reality

Saudi Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Asheikh in a Saudi news report
: “Whoever questions the legitimacy and independence of the
Shariah justice system is either ignorant or biased.”
Sweden's current government has a well-deserved reputation for irritating people, especially in our neighbourhood. It has recently given formal recognition to a state called Palestine, the first European country to do so. It has criticized Israel in ways that make people like us think the key members of its leadership are not especially well informed; the impression we have is they follow the politically-correct herd for ideological knee-jerk reasons. They're hardly alone in that - it has become something of an international disease.

But we're not writing this to make a case against Sweden. Nor - for that matter - are we especially for them. Instead, we want to explain why what is happening to Sweden is an object lesson in how international politics work in general, and how policy in the Middle East in particular is made and conducted. It's not so pretty.

Our starting point is an article in today's Washington Post [here]. It describes how Margot Wallstrom, Sweden's Foreign Minister and a woman occasionally called strident in the media, was blocked from talking about democracy and women's rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo. Who blocked her? The Saudis.
An Arab diplomat confirmed to AFP that Riyadh had stopped the Swede from making her opening speech. Wallstroem had been invited as an honorary guest to the Arab ministers’ meeting in praise of her government’s decision to recognize Palestine in October. Her canceled opening speech — published by the Swedish foreign ministry — mentioned neither Saudi Arabia nor Wallstroem’s feminist foreign policy agenda but stressed women’s and human rights. [AFP | March 9, 2015]
Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom
January 2015 [Image Source]
Sweden didn't sit on its hands. It responded by scrapping a major arms deal between Swedish industry and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This was an agreement that had been in place for a decade and was up for renewal for a further five years in May. Sweden's arms industry watched, it would be fair to say, in astonishment.

Here's why: Swedish exports to Saudi Arabia were worth $1.3 billion in 2014. The now-scrapped military arms deal delivered Saudi Arabian purchase orders to Swedish factories of $39 million last year alone.

Wallstrom had already criticized the outrageous flogging of a Saudi blogger by the name of Raif Badawi. He managed a website that
"allowed social and political debate on Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government arrested Badawi in January 2012 on the charges of apostasy, insulting Islam and violations of Saudi laws on information technology." [source]
What's happening to Badawi is infuriating on any (non-Saudi) view. But in the realpolitik of international relations in our times, the customary thing is for such people - and the things officially done to them - to be ignored. Sweden not only did not ignore him; its foreign minister called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, which on any reasonable view the absolute hereditary monarchy is.

From a Saudi campaign poster that cannot be viewed by women
without a male guardian's approval [Image Source]
The human rights climate in Saudi Arabia is a nightmare, to say the least.

With no real attempt to hide this, the authorities there routinely, systematically, oppress religious minorities, women and homosexuals, and imprison tens of thousands for their political views. Hangings and beatings for "crimes" that include apostasy and blasphemy are common. Two years ago, The Guardian reproduced a Saudi government King Khalid Charitable Foundation poster of a veiled female with a bruised eye, and this poignant slogan: "Saudi women can't do anything without a male guardian's permission – including see the advert".

Governments, like ordinary people, know this, obviously. But few say or do anything about it because, well, being polite to the Saudis has its own rewards. And being not nice can be very expensive.

Saudi Arabia's new and robust Swedish policy is just getting underway. And it promises to be uncomfortable for Stockholm's decision-makers. The Washington Post mentions several of the steps already taken:
  • On March 10, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Stockholm, saying it was prompted by Sweden's "interference in its internal affairs."
  • The same day, Arab League foreign ministers issued a joint statement condemning Wallstrom's statement.
  • On March 18, the United Arab Emirates recalled its ambassador to Stockholm. In doing so, it issued a media release condemning Sweden and its "strong statements".
  • Also March 18, the Swedish ambassador was called in to the UAE foreign ministry for a harangue featuring “the UAE’s extreme condemnation of the statements made by the foreign minister of Sweden to the Swedish Parliament regarding the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its judicial system”, a free lesson about the need to "respect the religious and cultural specificities of countries and societies" and a warning not to "violate the principle of sovereignty upon which normal relations between states are based", and not to engage in "interference in internal affairs".
  • Yesterday (March 19, 2015) Associated Press was told by a Saudi official that his country "would no longer issue business visas to Swedish citizens or renew the current visas of Swedish citizens inside Saudi Arabia."
  • Transparently staged criticisms of Sweden and its government are now a daily occurrence in Saudi news reports: "Behind Sweden’s tirade is a hidden Western agenda to tarnish Islam", for instance, in a Saudi news channel yesterday, along with "Swedish antics condemned" and "‘Ignorant critics of KSA laws’ slammed" today.
How does this feel to the Swedes? [WaPo]:
  • "This is going to have a vast negative impact for the companies with interest in the region," Andreas Astrom, the communications director at Stockholm's Chamber of Commerce, told the Associated Press. "This is not good for Swedish business society and, in the long run, jobs in Sweden."
  • "In a very real way, this is about Sweden's credibility as a contractual partner," Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister and prime minister, told Defense News. "That credibility is important to a relatively small country like Sweden. This whole situation is unfortunate."
  • Sweden's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dag Yulin Danflet, has been telling the Saudi press that he is seeking to "contain the crisis."
  • "Swedish firms fear losing business in Arab world", the lead article in a Swedish newspaper on Wednesday.
From which it's fair to assume that at some point, when the pressure gets to the right level, when the Foreign Ministry identifies the moment when it can save face, Sweden will climb down from its tree and adjust its foreign policy pronouncements to the prevailing winds of international trade. It's much less about rights; much more about credibility as a contractual partner and supplier.

That's how foreign policy is made, and that's how the world is. All the pronouncements about principles, human rights, self-determination and over-riding humanitarian concerns can be put back where they came from. What's really important is that those "religious and cultural specificities" are given the appropriate degree of genuflection.

The editors at the Washington Post got it right; the headline on today's report, the one we quoted above, is:
Sweden stood up for human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is how Saudi Arabia is punishing Sweden.

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