The allure of the desert sheiks is twofold: they sell lots of oil and they buy lots of guns. They have the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and they are the world's largest purchaser of military hardware. The oil alone brings Western leaders bowing and scraping. Earlier this year, President Obama cut short a visit to India to lead perhaps the most prestigious political entourage in American history to pay his respects to the new Saudi king. Add to the oil the seemingly inexhaustible market for arms and Western leaders shiver with ecstasy. If there is an inconsistency between their concerns about instability in the Middle East and their turning it into a massive arms market, they refuse to notice.
What a surprise then when Sweden announced it was terminating its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a primary overseas market for its defense firms, over a concern about human rights. The move followed complaints by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom that the Saudis prevented her from speaking about democracy and women's rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo. The Saudis retaliated by withdrawing their ambassador.
Needless to say, Swedish business leaders are upset, publicly claiming this undermines the country’s credibility as a trading partner. Its credibility as a promoter of democracy and human rights, on the other hand, apparently means naught to these guys.
The Swedes may just have started a conversation among European countries regarding the ethics of peddling arms to a brutal, misogynistic dictatorship. The kingdom's public floggings and beheadings, oppression of women and general disregard for civil rights is forcing many European leaders to recognize it for what it is—a medieval theocracy hiding behind a veil of fabulous oil wealth.
Canada, meanwhile, is busily working to expand its arms sales to the kingdom. Like the Swedish businessmen, our government is not about to let principle interfere with profit.