TRISTAN WILLENBURG WRITES– Western ideas clash yet again with Middle Eastern realities.  Saudi Arabia will no longer issue or renew the visas of Swedish nationals and has withdrawn its ambassador from Stockholm in response to the comments of a senior Swedish official.  An arms deal between the two countries has also fallen apart over the issue.

The decision was reportedly a response to Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, and her recent criticism of Saudi Arabia’s record of human and women’s rights in a speech to the Swedish Parliament. Wallstrom has previously joined much of the western international community in condemning Saudi Arabia’s flogging of blogger Raif Badawi, who was accused and convicted last year of several charges, including apostasy.

In January, Wallstrom wrote on Twitter that the flogging was a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression.” Saudi Arabia accused Wallstrom of “flagrant interference in internal affairs,” according to an official state news statement, and blocked her from speaking to a delegation of Arab leaders.  This led to the current rift between the two countries.

This decision to snub the Swedes was surprisingly supported by the Arab League, which remarked that the planned speech was “incompatible with the fact that the constitution of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on sharia [law].” The United Arab Emirates has also withdrawn its ambassador to Sweden in support of Saudi Arabia. This is a step back for the foreign policy of Sweden, which was the first EU country to recognize the Palestinian state.

This move could have major economic effects since Saudi Arabia is the 18th most important exporting country for Sweden with nearly 1.3 billion dollars in goods. Multinational companies like Volvo, H&M, and IKEA conduct business in Saudi Arabia. The visa ban will make it hard for them to do so, thus impacting their sales.  The end of the arms deal was also felt in Sweden.  To protest, more than 30 business leaders composed a letter to the government, begging Stockholm to continue the arms deal and maintain Saudi Arabia as a trading partner.

Canceling the arms deal will probably hurt Sweden more than the Arabs. But Sweden may still pull off a media win, positioning itself as the mouse that roared in defense of human rights.