Sweden's Feminist Approach Annoys Saudi Arabia

Just as feminist social commentators are trolled on Twitter, so too feminist politicians and their administrations can’t catch a break. Late last year, Sweden’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Margot Wallström announced that Sweden would pursue a “feminist foreign policy.” Now, that feminist approach has landed Wallström in hot water, after she accused Saudi Arabia of being a “dictatorship” that violates women’s rights. Her criticisms have resulted in deteriorating diplomatic and economic ties between the two nations, the Guardian reports, and Wallström has come under fire from both the Arab League and Swedish conservatives.

The souring of relations between Stockholm and Riyadh began in February, when leftist Wallström gave a speech to parliament in which she made the accusatory remarks. Rather than just focusing on women’s rights, Wallström broadened her critique to include the oil-rich kingdom’s questionable record on human rights. She denounced the flogging of a Saudi blogger, who had been convicted of insulting Islam on his popular, liberal blog. Since then, the Swedish government declined to renew a defense cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

In response, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden. The kingdom also announced that it would no longer be issuing visas to Swedish nationals, and would not renew visas already held by Swedish citizens living in the Arab kingdom. The moves were made explicitly in response to Wallström’s actions, a senior Saudi official told the Guardian on condition of anonymity. The Foreign Minister was also blocked from speaking at an Arab League event. The United Arab Emirates, a close ally of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, also recalled its Swedish ambassador, and condemned Wallström’s words as “unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”


As the Washington Post points out, criticism of Saudi Arabia doesn’t happen often, despite the kingdom’s blatant disregard for human rights. Adam Taylor writes:

Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally, and official criticism of the kingdom is remarkably rare, despite Saudi Arabia's poor treatment of women and minorities, lack of tolerance for political discourse, and harsh punishments for apostasy and blasphemy.

But despite arguably securing the moral high ground, Wallström’s comments have proved divisive in the Scandinavian nation. According to Reuters, Wallström’s “feminist” policies have revealed a struggle over Sweden’s identity, as the country wavers between focusing on its potential role as a “moral great power” and looking more realistically to economic issues and national security. Andreas Astrom, the communications director at Stockholm’s Chamber of Commerce, told the Guardian that Swedish companies were concerned about their ability to conduct business with Saudi Arabia:

This is going to have a vast negative impact for the companies with interest in the region… This is not good for Swedish business society and, in the long run, jobs in Sweden.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

The Guardian estimates that the Scandinavian country exported around $1.3 billion worth of goods to Saudi Arabia — placing it in Sweden’s top 20 most important exporting countries. Conservative Swedish factions have been quick to weigh in. “All this has been badly planned,” Paulina Neuding, editor of right-leaning magazine NEO, told AFP.

In a move that Wallström possibly did not anticipate, some have characterized her words as an anti-Islamic tirade. Middle East Eye reports that the top religious authority in Saudi Arabia has accused Sweden of disrespecting Islam and sharia law. The latter forms the basis of the kingdom’s legal system, which has been called “one of the strictest interpretations” of Islamic law currently in existence. “The Kingdom is proud of its Islamic laws, which protects human rights, dignity and private property,” secretary general of the country’s Council of Senior Scholars told Arab News.


The Organization of Islamic Cooperation leapt on this assessment, accusing Sweden of claiming moral authority based on one-sided judgements. The Arab League issued a collaborative statement admonishing Wallström:

The ministers have voiced their condemnation and astonishment at the issuance of such statements that are incompatible with the fact that the Constitution of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on sharia…Sharia has guaranteed human rights and preserved people’s lives, possessions, honor and dignity.

The Washington Post reports that even scholars from within Sweden have said her comments could be interpreted as a criticism of Islam — an inflammatory stance in a country with an occasionally turbulent relationship with its own Muslim citizens, at least 130 of whom have joined ISIS as recruits. Wallström has since attempted to clarify her statements. Last week she told parliament, “We have the greatest respect for Islam as a world religion and for its contributions to our common civilization.”


But placing aside the religious overtones, Maysam Behravesh on Your Middle East has categorized the dispute as a battle of feminist and patriarchal states, writing:

Far from being essentially a dispute over democratic governance or even human rights, the current Saudi-Swedish row basically represents a clash of state genders, pitting a “masculine” religious autocracy against a “feminine” social democracy…the way [Sweden] deals with the situation will demonstrate the viability of a “feminist foreign policy” in practice.

Wallström has previously described her vision for a feminist foreign policy. “The tools of foreign policy can, in varying degrees, be hard as well as soft. The situation at hand determines this,” she said. “The half of the population that so far has been almost systematically excluded and forgotten — namely, women — will now be included.” Her actions have been watched closely, to determine what such a policy will actually entail. “Many asked what a feminist foreign policy would mean in practice,” Ann-Marie Ekengren, a professor of international politics at Gothenburg University told Middle East Eye, “and I believe this is an example... (that) we will criticise violations of human rights, of women's rights.”

It’s not the first time that Sweden’s feminists have gained the spotlight amid censure. In 2010, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange actually made a comparison between the now-estranged countries. “Sweden is the Saudi Arabia of feminism,” he told an interviewer — characterizing the country as a hotbed of feminist extremism while discussing the sexual assault charges laid against him by his Swedish host. Assange has still not faced the allegations, although he is apparently “willing to cooperate.”

Not so, Saudi Arabia. As the Arab kingdom holds firm on its icy reaction, Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf has reportedly offered the government his help in mending the relationship.

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