Wallström: "Important to have good relations with Saudi Arabia"

Foreign Minister Margot Wallström underlined the importance of good relations with Saudi Arabia during a debate in the Swedish Parliament Friday, news agency TT reports.

Wallström said Saudi Arabia has a central role in the area when it comes to developments in Palestine, Syria and Libya, as well as in the fight against terrorism and climate change. She also added that the King of Saudi Arabia is the guardian of two of the most important mosques in Islam.

"For all these reasons it is important for our countries to have good diplomatic relations", she said, adding, "we want a straight and respectful dialogue in those questions where we don't agree, not least in the area of human rights."

Wallström previously criticised the punishment, including flogging, of a blogger in the kingdom, calling it medieval. Sweden also recently cancelled a defence co-operation agreement with Saudi Arabia. As a result of all this, Wallström was prevented from speaking to a meeting of the Arab League and Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm in protest.

Wallström also stressed that Sweden's criticism of Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with religion.

"We have the greatest respect for Islam as a world religion, and for its contributions to our common civilisation", she said.

Speaking at a press conference after the debate, Wallström once again underlined that her criticism of the country was about human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia, and not criticism of Islam. There is a fear in the Swedish government that that interpretation of her comments is spreading in social media in the Middle East.

"Yes, I am concerned about that", she told news agency TT.

But, according to Thord Janson at the Institute for Global Studies at Gothenburg University, Wallström is wrong. Speaking to TT, he said:

"When she spoke about medieval punishments she criticized the sharia laws, the laws on which the Saudi legal system rests. The Sharia laws and these punishments are stipulated in the Koran and are God's law. so when Wallström criticises the punishments it becomes a criticism of Islam, even if she didn't mean it that way", he says.