After Saudi feud, Sweden debates a 'feminist' global role

Mon Mar 16, 2015 5:51am EDT
 
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By Alistair Scrutton and Johan Ahlander

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - In a few months, Sweden's minority government has managed to antagonize both Israel and the Arab world, while also angering business leaders at home as Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom steadfastly pursues human rights and feminism.

Wallstrom's agenda, and the criticism it has drawn, has exposed a struggle over Sweden's identity and whether it should become what some politicians call a "moral great power", or prioritize security and an export-led economy.

After Sweden canceled a defense cooperation accord with Saudi Arabia last week over rights concerns, the Arab League condemned Wallstrom and blocked her from giving a speech in Cairo. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm; hundreds of millions of dollars in business are threatened.

Wallstrom, a former EU commissioner, promised a "feminist" foreign policy when her Social Democrats formed the coalition government last October. Since then, she has described the flogging of a liberal Saudi blogger as "medieval", winning praise from many commentators for standing up to the kingdom.

"I won't back down over my statements on women's rights, democracy and that one shouldn't flog bloggers," Wallstrom said, referring to sentencing of Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes. "I have nothing to be ashamed of."

But Sweden is the world's 12th biggest arms exporter. Its Triple-A rated economy depends on brand exports from IKEA to H&M. With Russia also testing Sweden's air and submarine defenses, this may be the wrong time to put human rights front and center in foreign policy, her critics say.

Sweden has a history of neutrality. But under the previous center-right government it forged closer links with NATO, participating in military missions in Afghanistan and Libya, something Wallstrom has promised to tone down.

The Saudi defense accord had helped Swedish firms to make 4.8 billion crowns ($567 million) in 2011-2014. Signed in 2005, it had been due for renewal in May.   Continued...

 
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom gestures during an interview with Sweden's TT News Agency at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in central Stockholm, March 11, 2015. REUTERS/Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency