In an interview with Swedish Radio News, Enström initially and repeatedly said she doesn’t divide up countries that way.
“We don’t make lists of countries,” she says, “but you can certainly say it isn’t a democracy.”
Asked again, she replied:
“We don’t make lists, and in this case when the issue is to determine whether to export war materiel or not, this is based on a number of factors.”
Asked if as Defence Minister, aside from the issue of weapon exports, did she see Saudi Arabia as a dictatorship, Enström replied:
“We don’t divide up countries that way, but it is a very authoritarian regime.”
To the follow-up question if she couldn’t say it was a dictatorship, the defence minister said:
“If you want me to make that kind of division among different countries, we don’t make that kind of lists. But we do actually carry out a review of how different countries respect human rights. It is completely obvious that Saudi Arabia is responsible for serious abuses where human rights are concerned, nor do they have general elections and that kind of rule.”
The position of Enström, a member of the conservative Moderate Party, has provoked reactions among both other members of the government, as well as the opposition.
The Liberals’ Jan Björklund, who is both Deputy Prime Minister as well as Education Minister, is more forthright. He tells the TT news agency:
“Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s worst dictatorships, and there should not be any lack of clarity in the Swedish position.”
That view is echoed from the other side of the aisle, as Urban Ahlin, foreign policy spokesperson for the opposition Social Democrats tells TT:
“I have a hard time understanding why they are afraid to call Saudi Arabia a dictatorship, but it must be because it is ruled by a family and if they get angry they might not want to trade with us any more. Saudi Arabia is one of the worst dictatorships and the government ought to be able to say that.”
But Enström’s conservative Moderate colleague, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, is a bit more equivocal in tweeting a response to TT:
“I usually describe Saudi Arabia as an absolute monarchy”, he tweets, avoiding the D word.
The TT news agency points out that the Swedish Foreign Ministry’s official description of Saudi Arabia does not use the word “dictatorship”. Instead, the formulation is: “Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, with elected popular representation or political parties.”
The word “dictatorship” is also not used in the foreign ministry’s descriptions of Cuba or North Korea.
The kerfuffle has led Defence Minister Enström to issue a press release finally using the word “dictatorship” together with Saudi Arabia:
“Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime and an absolute monarchy, where there are serious violations of human rights. The government does not divide the countries of the world into democracies or dictatorships, but it one has to describe Saudi Arabia as either a democracy or a dictatorship, then Saudi Arabia ought to be described as a dictatorship.”
But Robert Hårdh, head of the human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders, is critical. "I think it is strange, it indicates some kind of fear of going to far in the judgement of the country. But Saudi Arabia is not a borderline case, it is as clear cut a dictatorship as there can be".
One indication that the Saudi situation is sensitive is that Enström’s predecessor, Sten Tolgfors, was forced to resign in March after revelations that Sweden had helped build a weapons factory in the oil-rich kingdom.