11:33 GMT +319 April 2019
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    Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Lofven steps out of a car

    Sweden Seeks to Mend Fences With 'Medieval' Saudi Arabia

    © AFP 2019 / ALAIN JOCARD
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    Now that a year and a half has gone since Sweden's bitter spat with Saudi Arabia over feminism and human rights, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is heading to Riyadh to mend fences and repair severed business ties.

    During his visit to Riyadh this weekend, Stefan Löfven will meet representatives of the royal family, as well as the Saudi foreign minister and the country's human rights commission, Swedish national broadcaster SVT reported. Unsurprisingly, Löfven will be accompanied by two high-profile businesspeople: banker and industrialist Marcus Wallenberg of the prominent oligarch family the Wallenbergs and Maria Rankkam, the head of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.

    Sweden's eagerness to smooth relations is more than understandable, as Saudi Arabia is a key export market, as well as a major geopolitical player in both the Gulf Region and the whole Middle East. Since Sweden is all set to step in as atemporary member of the UN Security Council next year, the Swedish government quite reasonably seeks good diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia ahead of coming talks on Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Saudi Arabia is also Sweden's single most important trade partner in the Middle East, with Swedish exports reaching 11 billion SEK ($1.25bln) in 2014. In the early 2010s, Riyadh was also a prominent buyer of Swedish arms.

    "Saudi Arabia is an important political and economic player with a key role in the development and security of the region," Stefan Löfven said in a statement. "The situation in Syria will be a prioritized issue in our talks. I also see good opportunities for more cooperation in areas like innovation and sustainability." By his own admission, Löfven will also bring up the issue of capital punishment.

    In March 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Stockholm after what it labeled "a flagrant interference in internal affairs" by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström.

    Wallström, who takes pride in being Sweden's first feminist Foreign Minister, criticized the practice of sentencing people who "insult" Islam to corporal punishment and prison sentences, calling it "medieval." Wallström also called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship and lashed out against the state of women's rights in the country.

    Subsequently, enraged Saudi Arabia blocked Wallström from addressing the Arab League. In the ensuing exchange of blows, Sweden officially scrapped a military agreement with Riyadh, whereupon Saudi Arabia retaliated with refusing visas to Swedish entrepreneurs. All in all, a total of 57 states expressed criticism towards Wallström's moral crusade.

    As Wallström's incessant campaigning for women's rights were estimated to have cost Swedish arms manufacturers millions of dollars in lost and canceled contracts, Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf had to step in to bridge the diplomatic rift. Three letters to Saudi King Salman (one from Sweden's monarch and two from Prime Minister Löfven) were hand-delivered in Riyadh by Björn von Sydow, a high-ranking emissary of the Swedish government. Despite Sweden's decision to keep their contents as secret, the world was left with an impression that Sweden came up with an apology.

    Sweden had also a stormy moment with Morocco, after Swedish parliament voted to recognize Western Sahara, a former Spanish province under Moroccan control since 1976, as an independent republic However, the Swedish government later reversed the recognition, following political and economic pressure from Rabat.

    Besides making enemies in the Arab world, Wallström was pronounced persona non grata in Israel. Remarkably, Wallström's first step in office was to recognize Palestine as state.

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    Tags:
    diplomacy, arms export, Carl XVI Gustaf, King Salman, Stefan Löfven, Margot Wallström, Middle East, Saudi Arabia, Scandinavia, Sweden
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