After weeks of diplomatic wrangling and recrimination, the Saudi government on March 27 announced that it would reinstate its ambassador, Ibrahim bin Saad bin Ibrahim al-Brahim, to Stockholm. The ambassador had been recalled on March 11 as a protest against Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström's criticism of Saudi Arabia's legal practices and treatment of women. In February, she had described conditions in the desert kingdom as "medieval".
The recall of the ambassador came a day after the Swedish government announced that it would discontinue its weapons exports to Saudi Arabia.
The Arab reaction to what they saw as a deliberate denigration of Saudi Arabia and Islam was fury. In a statement, the foreign ministers of The Arab League said: "Arab countries totally reject Wallström's statement as irresponsible and unacceptable. ... Saudi Arabia's Constitution is based on the Shariah that protects the right of people and safeguards their blood, wealth and honor."
Similarly, on March 9, the Saudi cabinet, chaired by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman, rejected any denunciation of the Saudi judiciary, whose decisions, it noted, are based on Islamic law and "implemented impartially to maintain the country's stability and security."
Sweden makes amends
It is not exactly clear what motivated the Saudi king to resume diplomatic relations with Sweden. What is known is that Foreign Minister Wallström and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven have been quick to stress that is had never been their intention to slight Islam, which they now claim has made great contributions to human civilization, nor the Saudi kingdom.
Three letters to King Salman -- one from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf and two from Prime Minister Löfven – were hand-delivered in Riyadh by Björn von Sydow, a high-ranking emissary of the Swedish government. Their contents are unknown, following a decision by the Swedish foreign office to classify them as secret. This decision came after the foreign office claimed it could not find the letters.
Prime Minister Löfven and Foreign Minister Wallström have said repeatedly that the letters do not contain any apology to Saudi Arabia. According to the daily Expressen, however, Saudi Arabia demanded a number of concessions from Sweden -- one of them, an apology. It is clearly the impression in the Arab world that Sweden has in fact apologized.
An apology, or not an apology? Sweden's Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (right) and King Carl XVI Gustaf sent personal letters to Saudi Arabia's King Salman (left). Löfven claims that the letters did not contain the apology demanded by Saudi Arabia.
Löfven has a somewhat different, if convoluted, explanation.
On March 28, Expressen quoted Löfven as saying: "We have explained [to the Saudis, ed.] that we regret if there is something that has been perceived as if we have criticized Islam, which we have never done." The Prime Minister added that Sweden has no intention of ever criticizing Islam. He continued: "We have the greatest respect for Islam as a religion."
Löfven was keen to emphasize that "Sweden still stands for human rights. It is immensely important for us to do that. At the same time we also wish to develop cooperation with Saudi Arabia."
As is customary in the Swedish media, Expressen refrained from asking the Prime Minister if his comments should be taken as an indication that Sweden would stop criticizing such Islamic practices as torturing bloggers, executing infidels and oppressing women.
A possible deal
It is hard to say, therefore, what concessions Sweden may have given King Salman in exchange for normalizing relations between the two countries.
The following, however, stands to reason:
- Saudi Arabia is free to say that Sweden has apologized and Sweden is free to say that it has not.
- Sweden may continue to claim that it is a champion of human rights in general, but promises to tone down its criticism of abuses in Islamic countries.
- Sweden will never again criticize sharia practices and never associate such practices with Islam.
- Sweden may even have agreed to further the cause of Islam back home by, for example, promising to build new mega-mosques and giving greater influence to local imams and representatives of Islamic missionary establishments.
If the latter concession has in fact been made, it will not be hard for the Swedish government to implement it. The Minister for Culture and Democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke, has already promised to initiate a "national strategy against Islamophobia." In Sweden, "Islamophobia" is interpreted as any criticism of Islam and mass immigration.
If the Swedish-Saudi deal is as conjectured, Saudi Arabia will have obtained de facto veto power over parts of Sweden's foreign policy -- and perhaps its domestic policies.
However one interprets the outcome of the recent diplomatic row, Sweden has suffered an immense loss of credibility. From now on, it will be hard to take seriously Sweden's claims to be a humanitarian and feminist superpower.
Ingrid Carlqvist and Lars Hedegaard are editors-in-chief of Dispatch International.