HELSINKI — Sweden's Socialist-Green Alliance (SGA) government is meeting stiff resistance from opposition parties against plans to reopen a defense-industrial export deal with Saudi Arabia abandoned in 2012.
The political conflict in 2012 emerged from the public disclosure of the so-called Swedish-Saudi clandestine "Defense Project Simoom." The fallout resulted in the resignation of then-Defense Minister Sten Tolgfors in the Moderate Party-led government headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
The recent outcry from opposition benches gained traction when Prime Minister Stefan Löfven confirmed to the national parliament Feb. 12 that his government plans to renegotiate the defense-industrial agreement with Saudi Arabia by May.
The potential for a defense-industrial deal was initially discussed under a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between Sweden and Saudi Arabia in Stockholm in November 2005. The Swedish delegation in the MoU talks was chaired by the then-Defense Minister Leni Björklund.
The type of expanded defense-industrial deal being pursued by Sweden would include weapons sales in addition to the construction and equipping of weapons factories and other possible projects, including the building of underground defense installations.
The 2005 MoU proposed a narrow range of projects. These included the construction of one or more anti-tank and missile factories by Sweden in Saudi Arabia.
The counter strike by opposition parties is headed by the Liberals and Left parties. These are joining forces to obstruct the administration's push to rekindle a new Swedish-Saudi defense-industrial pact.
The Liberals and the Left parties hope to force Löfven's government to discontinue plans to renegotiate the deal with Saudi Arabia on the grounds that it conflicts with Sweden's human rights and trade policies on dealing with so-called "dictator states."
Löfven's desire to re-engage with Saudi Arabia has also drawn opposition from senior Green Party members within the Social Democratic-led SGA.
Still, the potential danger exists that the Greens' leadership will back the Social Democrats' Swedish-Saudi cooperation talks, said Birgitta Ohlsson, the Liberal Party's foreign affairs spokeswoman and Parliamentary Defense Committee member.
The Greens are expected to back the government's newly devised 2020 Trade And Exports Enhancement project, which prioritizes expanding exports to non-Western countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Ohlsson said.
"The Greens have already made U-turns on critical areas of defense. The party was opposed to raising defense spending before it entered government with the Social Democrats in 2014. It also backed the closure of the state defense export agency FXM, a position it later changed. The fear now is it will agree to reopen negotiations on a new defense-industrial deal with Saudi Arabia," Ohlsson said.
The Liberals want the government to terminate all actions to develop military-industrial cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
"The majority view in parliament is that democratic criterion must be applied to all areas of Sweden's arms exports, and that strict rules must exist to ensure that we do not collaborate with dictatorships like Saudi Arabia," Ohlsson said.
The Green ministers in Cabinet must unite to collapse any efforts to resuscitate the talks with Saudi Arabia, said Carl Schlyter, a Green Party MP and chairman of the Swedish parliament's Committee on European Union Affairs.
"This government was formed on the basis of a pro-feminist approach to our foreign policy. Now the administration wants to negotiate a broad defense-industrial agreement with Saudi Arabia, one of the worlds most austere dictatorships," Schlyter said.
"The type of expansive defense agreement sought goes against all of the basic elements of peace, gender equality and democratic rights that the Green Party reached with the Social Democrats before we formed the alliance government in 2014. Any intended talks must be abandoned," Schlyter said.
The trade and investment dimension of any military-industrial deal with Saudi Arabia is propelling the SGA toward a renegotiated deal, said Hans Linde, the Left Party's foreign affairs spokesman.
"This is less about human rights and more about helping Sweden's defense industry expand exports and grow its industrial base. Ultimately, this is clearly a major military-industrial project for the government. It is looking to broaden Sweden's export potential. Defense has been identified as a prime candidate regardless of the human rights record of certain prospective customers," Linde said.
In December, the government tasked the Ministry of Enterprise (MoE) to formulate a new sustainable export strategy as part of the 2020 Trade And Exports Enhancement project.
The MoE, in a preliminary draft of the new strategy, has named Saudi Arabia as one of the 26 "new markets" that will be prioritized under the project.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are also on the priority list, which is based around those "fringe countries" that are forecast to achieve high rates of economic growth in the future.
"Trade and contacts with countries is a way to promote human rights. What we are doing now, unlike the previous government, is to ensure we will highlight the issue of sustainable business and human rights at a completely different level," said Mikael Damberg, Sweden's enterprise minister.
The pursuit of a defense-industrial deal with Saudi Arabia was shelved in 2012 in the wake of reports that the Swedish Defense Research Agency had concealed the establishment of a shell company to negotiate the construction of a missile production facility in Saudi Arabia.
The Ministry of Defense maintained that it had no knowledge of the shell company, its specific mission or general activities.
The affair was investigated by the State Prosecutors Office (SPO), which dropped the inquiry in September 2012 due to what it described as a lack of concrete evidence that "gave the SPO no reason to prosecute."
The latest figures for 2013 positions Saudi Arabia as Sweden's fourth biggest export market for weapons and defense materials.
According to data from the Stockholm-based and state-funded Non-Proliferation and Export Controls Agency, Sweden exported military systems and equipment valued at US $1.5 billion in 2013. Of this amount, the Saudi Arabian market accounted for $90 million.
The agency's figures for 2013 include follow-on deliveries by Saab of its Erieye radar system and connected airborne early warning and control systems. Saudi Arabia was, in 2013, the biggest customer market for Swedish defense hardware after Thailand, the US and Norway.