ISTANBUL, TURKEY —
Sweden has torn up a decades-old, multimillion-dollar arms agreement with Saudi Arabia in a diplomatic dispute sparked by Swedish criticism of Riyadh's human rights record. In response, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Sweden.
The spat between Stockholm and Riyadh was triggered Monday when the Saudis blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom from speaking about women’s rights to a summit of Arab leaders in Cairo. Saudi delegates objected to her condemnation of harsh treatment meted out in 2014 to Saudi blogger and activist Raef Badawi.
He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes, to be administered over 20 weeks this year, and received the first set of 50 in January. The next round has been postponed several times, partly as a result of international pressure.
Arab foreign ministers joined the Saudis in expressing irritation with Wallstrom, saying in a statement that her criticism was “Incompatible with the fact that the constitution of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is based on Sharia [law].”
"Sharia has guaranteed human rights and preserved people’s lives, possessions, honor and dignity. The ministers consider the comments as irresponsible and unacceptable," the statement said.
The rift comes as more attention is being focused on Gulf states and what many critics see as their role in providing an ideological underpinning for jihadists such as the militants of the so-called Islamic State.
An American human rights group issued a report Wednesday accusing Saudi Arabia of providing official "perks" or privileges to clerics who preach hatred toward other religions, including Christians, Shi’ites, and Jews. Authors of the report said such incitement bolstered the terror narrative promoted by the Islamic State group as well as IS fighters' slaughtering and enslaving their captives from religious minorities in Syria and Iraq.
Human Rights First, a non-profit group based in New York, accused Riyadh in its report of promoting "extremist ideologies, through its education system, and radical clerics who receive frequent privileges from the state." The group said Saudi authorities “continue to indoctrinate the country’s youth ... [and] encourage violence against other religious groups as well as Sunni Muslims who deviate from orthodox religious teaching.”
It accused the Saudis of flouting promises to scrub the country’s school textbooks free of passages inciting hatred toward other religions, and said official school curricula and standard texts still taught, far from international norms, that homosexuals and converts from Islam should be executed. Jews are depicted as inherently treacherous, and argued Christians were waging a modern-day crusade against Islam.
In 2008, the Saudi promises were cited by U.S. officials as a reason for granting the kingdom a waiver from trade penalties under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
The influence of Saudi education reverberates beyond Saudi Arabia. Wahhabi religious textbooks from the kingdom are often used in institutions the Saudis have funded around the world: about 210 Islamic centers, 1,500 mosques, 202 colleges and nearly 2,000 religious schools.
Human Rights First singled out several radical clerics who enjoy special state privileges, including government salaries, officially endorsed speaking opportunities and access to government-controlled television programs.
“Hardline clerics are granted impunity by the state to propagate the sorts of hatred against other sects and religions that encourage Sunni sectarian extremism and legitimize terrorism by ISIL, al-Qaida and other such groups,” the report contends.
The principal author of the report, former U.S. congressional staffer David Weinberg, warned the “international community is at risk of eventually winning the immediate battle against the so-called Islamic State, but losing the broader war against radical extremism if Washington and its allies keep turning a blind eye” to Saudi human-rights abuses and promotion of religious intolerance.
Sweden's human rights pushback against Saudi Arabia has triggered a fierce debate in the Scandinavian country, which first signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Saudi Arabia in 2005 that set out details of cooperation on intelligence, surveillance and weapons manufacture. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest arms importer.
After the diplomatic dispute broke, Social Democratic lawmakers called on Prime Minister Stefan Löfven to not renew the memorandum, and that prompted business leaders to warn that the country’s reputation as a trading partner would be at stake.
Asa Romson, deputy prime minister and member of Sweden's Green party, told reporters in Stockholm the scrapping of the arms agreement Tuesday is “a win for a clear foreign policy based on respect for human rights, and a moral compass where this type of far-reaching military cooperation agreement simply does not fit.”