Friday, March 13, 2015

Sweden, Germany say no arms for Saudi Arabia; will US ever be so principled?

Commentary here.

Swedish politicians have done a lot of nail-biting over the contract. The cancellation has been under discussion for months, with various interest groups, from feminists to environmentalists, putting pressure on the government.

Prime Minister Stefan Loefven has denied it, but the last straw apparently came on Monday, when Saudi Arabia blocked Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom from speaking to the Arab League in Cairo.

Wallstrom had been invited because Sweden was the first EU country to recognize the Palestinian state, but because she had previously called Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, the kingdom’s representatives apparently feared she might further embarrass their county before other Arab leaders. It was only after Wollstrom’s invitation was rescinded that Loefven confirmed the Saudi deal was finally off.

Strictly speaking, military cooperation with the Saudi regime should have been a nonstarter for European Union countries since 2008, when they approved their Common Position on arms exports. The document makes “respect for human rights in the country of final destination” a precondition of defense cooperation. A country that uses Shariah law, as Saudi Arabia does, can hardly be a paragon of respect for human rights in the Western sense of this expression.

For a time, however, another paragraph in the Common Position has outweighed that consideration: “Behavior of the buyer country with regard to the international community, in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and its respect for international law.”

The Saudis have managed to convince the West that they are a reliable ally against terrorist organizations. U.S. policy in the Middle East has been in large part based on its partnership with the Saudis. European voters, however, have long been irritated with what they perceive as the consequences of U.S. activity in the volatile region, including the increased flow of refugees from Syria and Iraq.

They find it hard to understand why their governments should support an oppressive and fundamentalist regime just because it is a U.S. ally. Politicians have to take the popular mood into account, so the tide began to turn against arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Sooner or later, the United Kingdom, whose defense industry counts Saudi Arabia as its biggest foreign customer, will also need to confront the fact that it’s arming a blatantly undemocratic country in contradiction to EU commitments. It may decide in favor of holding on to its market share and its special relationship with the U.S., but that will inevitably weaken the U.K.’s diplomatic position in matters involving human rights. Germany, as Europe’s new leader, is at least trying to be more consistent in putting principles over cash.