The astonishing diplomatic row between Sweden and Saudi Arabia poses again the question of what role does the UK want to play in the world.
Wednesday’s thewhatandthewhy argued that if the UK wants to maintain its place at the top table, it must have the military muscle to be taken seriously. If not, then the UK could quietly draw in its horns and play a role similar to Sweden. In that unlikely event, the UK would be free to embroil itself in a massive row with one of its allies, and customers, Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have recalled their ambassador to Sweden following remarks by Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom that Riyadh said was “an interference in its internal affairs”, and a “flagrant” violation of international covenants.
Wallstrom had called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, denounced its treatment of women, and described the sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes as “medieval”.
You can make a strong argument for all three points, but it is rare for a diplomat to so do, and it is certain that consequences will flow from it.
Wallstrom’s speech to the Arab League in Cairo was then cancelled after the Saudis leaned on their fellow dictators who all agreed, in essence, that they had the right to be barbaric in their own countries without outside interference.
The Saudis do have a degree of logic on their side. Saudi Arabia’s constitution is based on sharia law, said a statement from the Arab League, which reminded us that “Sharia has guaranteed human rights and preserved people’s lives, possessions, honour and dignity”.
Sweden then announced the truly amazing part of the story. The Democrat-led, Green-influenced, government cancelled a decade-long defence agreement with Saudi Arabia despite howls of anguish from some of Sweden’s top industrialists. Saab’s Erieye radar system was part of the deal and a five-year renewal was due in May.
Previously Wallstrom and her Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, had supported the arms deal but the Saudis put the Swedes in a place where they had to either back down from all the human rights statements they have trumpeted in recent years, or take a financial hit by standing on principle.
Per Jonsson, from Stockholm’s Institute of Foreign Affairs argued that the country had also taken a diplomatic hit, telling the Guardian newspaper that “No-one will listen to Sweden for many years to come”.
That may be true in Riyadh, and in some other Arab countries, but Raif Badawi will listen, as will all the others on the wrong end of a medieval whip or sword.
Ah, but there’s the rub. The high ground may smell better, but it’s not where the money is. Sweden as a plc will lose money, possibly jobs, and diplomatic influence in some quarters.
Which brings us to this Sceptered Isle. The UK has an arms industry, one of the most important in the world. It also has a strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia based on arms, oil, stability, and the Kingdom being a bulwark against Iranian hegemony.
That might explain why British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond might murmur quietly that whipping people for writing blogs is not the way ahead, but stops well short of telling it like it is – and it is barbaric.
Why? Because Britain does not want to play the role of Sweden.