Armed Conflicts, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

Sweden in Saudi Arms Deal Controversy

Ida Karlsson

STOCKHOLM, Mar 9 2012 (IPS) - Confidential documents revealed this week show how Sweden has in secret been helping Saudi Arabia to plan the construction of an advanced arms factory to produce anti-tank missiles.

Saudia Arabia, one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world condemned for its human rights violations by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, has nevertheless for several years been assisted by experts from the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI). The agency, which is an authority under the Ministry of Defence, has been involved in plans to develop Saudi Arabia’s weapons industry in cooperation with companies based in Sweden, the defence company Eurenco Bofors among others.

“It is extremely problematic that a government institutional authority assists in planning the establishment of a weapons factory in a dictatorship where gross human rights violations occur,” Anna Ek, head of the NGO Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society (SPAS) tells IPS.

Classified government documents revealed by the public broadcaster Swedish Radio Tuesday show that FOI since 2007 has been involved in a project called Simoom that has been kept secret from the public.

Confidential documents show that the plans have been far-reaching though the construction of an advanced weapons factory – which would be the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia – has not yet begun.

According to the Swedish government’s website, Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s most important trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa. While Sweden has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia in the past, a classified government document from June 2008 says that the project Simoom “is something new for FOI and stretches the boundary for what is possible for a Swedish agency.”

FOI General Director Jan Olof Lind denies the existence of the project.

“We do not have a project agreement with that country. I do not wish to comment on discussions that may or may not have occurred between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. These discussions are classified,” he told the Swedish Radio.

However, in a document sent by Jan Olof Lind to the Ministry of Defence in March 2009 the planned project is explained in detail. The document reveals that the project’s worth is several hundred million dollars and that Sweden’s involvement would stretch over a five to six-and-a-half year period.

In the confidential document it is also revealed that a private company, Swedish Security Technology and Innovation (SSTI) was founded to take over the negotiations. In this way FOI was distanced from the project in order to avoid any direct links between itself and the Saudi government.

“That a company was created to bypass scrutiny and that it was approved by the government is a huge scandal,” Anna Ek tells IPS.

Several former FOI employees confirm the existence of the project in interviews in Swedish Radio, including Dick Sträng who led the project until 2010 and was one of Lind’s closest colleagues. He said the Swedish government has been fully aware of the plans.

In an interview to Swedish Radio, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, said the cooperation with Saudi Arabia is based on an agreement that the former Social Democrat government entered into in 2005. This agreement was assessed by the current centre-right government when they came into power a year later. According to Bildt their judgment at the time was that it was not in Sweden’s interest to terminate the agreement.

On Tuesday Sweden’s Green Party spokesperson Gustav Fridolin announced that he would report the Minister for Defence, Sten Tolgfors, to the Committee on the Constitution to review his role in the matter. Several MPs have now demanded the minister’s resignation.

At a press conference Friday Tolgfors said that the connection between FOI and SSTI was problematic and that FOI had acted on its own initiative. He also called the project “a dead duck” and said it had not been discussed for several years by FOI and the Saudi Ministry of Defence.

Jan Erik Lövgren, Deputy Director General of the National Inspectorate of Strategic Products (ISP), the authority granting permission for arms exports in Sweden, confirmed to IPS that there was an ongoing dialogue between FOI and Saudi Arabia as late as last year, regarding the Simoom project.

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