Saudi Arabia freezes Swedish business visas in the latest episode of the fracturing of ties between the Gulf kingdom and Sweden
The diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Sweden has escalated after the former stopped issuing business visas to Swedish citizens on Thursday.
Sweden’s foreign ministry was informed by Riyadh, and Prime Minister Stefan Loefven was quoted by news agency TT as lamenting the decision.
“This is of course not a good situation,” he said. “We don’t want this situation with Saudi Arabia.”
Relations soured between the two countries after Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom was iced out of giving a speech on human rights to the Arab League in Cairo. Some members even viewed her comments as an affront to sharia law.
Wallstrom had previously criticised the Gulf kingdom for its poor record on human rights. Last month during parliamentary talks, she described the oil-rich kingdom as a “dictatorship” that violates the rights of women and whips bloggers. In January she described the punishment meted out by Saudi Arabia to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi as “mediaeval methods” and a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression.”
Badawi, 30, was sentenced last year to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of around $266,000 for “insulting Islam” and establishing the online Saudi Liberal Forum.
He was given the first 50 lashes in December, and was pronounced as medically unfit to undergo the subsequent monthly floggings. His case has been received with outrage around the world, with many human rights organisations calling on Saudi Arabia to stop the punishment.
Sweden ended its 10-year military ties with Saudi Arabia after Wallstrom was given the cold shoulder at the Arab League conference, which Saudi responded to by recalling its ambassador from Stockholm.
The United Arab Emirates followed in suit, and recalled its ambassador from Sweden in solidarity with its Gulf neighbour.
The UAE said in a statement that Wallstrom’s comments “violate the principle of sovereignty upon which the normal relations between countries are based” and “do not respect the religious and cultural particularities of states and communities.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council released a letter to Riyadh’s Swedish ambassador Dag Juhlin-Dannfelt, objecting to Wallstroem’s remarks.
“[Wallstrom’s] criticism of the kingdom’s judicial system and social foundations disregarded facts that prove the extent of progress the kingdom has achieved on [humanitarian] fronts,” said GCC spokesman Abdullatif al-Zayani on Thursday.
He added that the GCC considered Wallstrom’s remarks as “unacceptable interference” in Saudi’s internal affairs.
For its part, the Swedish government held urgent talks with business leaders on Thursday to discuss concerns over trade with Gulf countries following the cancellation of military ties and the visa freeze.
Swedish business leaders are concerned that their government’s ending of military ties could have far-reaching consequences. Yet the Green Party, the junior partner in Sweden’s coalition, has long pushed for the deal to be scrapped.