Many are rightly outraged over the fact that Sweden has an arms trade agreement with the Saudi theocracy.
How can it come to pass that we have a state-to-state relationship with a terrible dictatorship based on the trade in capacity to commit violent acts?
There is an historical explanation.
For decades – during the Cold War – Sweden had a hard time choosing between communist oppression and democracy, and instead a sort of middle ground.
At the same time, we had to protect ourselves against a possible attack from the Soviet Union, and therefore needed a strong defense.
Since we were not part of a larger alliance, we had to build a huge, private industry that could provide the Swedish military with materiel.
Keeping an industry like that afloat cost a lot of money.
Developing an aircraft (JAS) or an anti-tank missile system (BILL) was extremely expensive. In order to make it work, we had to export a substantial amount of armaments.
Our neighhours, like NATO-members Denmark and Norway, could use NATO-integrated systems and thus buy equipment from other Western countries, and thereby gain all the specialization and economies of scale that entails.
So it is Sweden’s policy of neutrality that is the original culprit: it was the Russians and our inability to decide between decency and oppression that lies behind the Saudi arms deal scandal.
And this policy and practice – to secretly sell arms to dubious regimes – is a hangover from that.
This is quite unreasonable, of course.
Saudi Arabia is a harsh, religious dictatorship; an inhumane theocracy without the rule of law and the total lack of basic freedoms and rights.
Freedom House, which assesses the world’s countries for civil liberties and political rights, classifies the country as a completely non-free, giving it a score of 6.5 out of worst possible 7 in its rankings.
As recently as March 2011, Saudi forces took part in beating down the Arab spring of Bahrain.
Sweden should not have military cooperation agreements with such countries, but with like-minded people.
We should cooperate with states that stand for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Then we can share the cost of development and production of weapons systems. If we can buy weapons from democracies, we don’t need to sell them to dictatorships.
One positive aspect of Saudi scandal, however, is that an increasing number of commentators who have previously been extremely vague with respect to their stance on the democracy-dictatorship have now opened their eyes to this crucial difference.
They have realized that we need to distinguish how a state and its regime should be valued, depending on how it is controlled.
Our ability to make that distinction has been notoriously inconsistent for decades.
Finally, those who now shout the loudest about arms exports are the same people who strongly defend the United Nations (UN) and international law.
They have trouble with selling arms to Saudi Arabia, but not with “cooperating” with the state on matters such as human rights and women’s rights in the UN.
One moment they reject Saudi Arabia, only to give the state legitimacy as reformers the next.
It’s time to take the issue of Sweden’s relations with dictatorships more seriously.
In all contexts.
Fredrik Segerfeldt is a libertarian Swedish commentator and author. He has previously been affiliated with the liberal Swedish think tank Timbro as well as the New Welfare Foundation (Den Nya Välfärden).
This article was originally published in Swedish on the Newsmill opinion website. English translation by The Local.