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When the West Wants Its Cake and To Eat It Too
20 / 04 / 2015
Leading Sheilas April this month, ailment journalist Ruby Hamad (Daily Life, sale The Drum) brilliantly dissects the West’s complicity in some of the world’s worst conflicts. How Sweden, global purveyors of kit furniture and fish breakfasts, and known for their progressive take on just about everything, have made a mint manufacturing and selling arms to oppressive middle eastern regimes.
In February, Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Margot Wallstorm, ignited a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia following a speech she gave in Swedish parliament. As described in the New Yorker, Wallstrom:
‘…stated what may appear to be a few facts about Saudi Arabia: that women are not allowed to drive; that their human rights are violated; and that the country is a dictatorship in which the royal family has absolute power. Like representatives of several other European countries, she also criticised the public flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi and later called it “medieval.”’
By early March, Saudi Arabia had recalled its ambassador from Sweden, while the Arab League came out in support of the kingdom, calling Wallstrom’s comments an “unacceptable interference” in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs.
Wallstrom, a Social Democrat who said she would be pursuing an explicitly feminist foreign policy when she took office last November, has been hailed as something of a hero in some parts of the Western media.
Writing for The Spectator, Nick Cohen, who dubbed the incident “The Wallstrom Affair,” praised her for her stance, particularly her declaration that it would be “unethical for Sweden to continue with its military co-operation agreement with Saudi Arabia.” He also called her “that modern rarity: a left-wing politician who goes where her principles take her.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post offered this enthusiastic headline: ‘At last, a western country that stands up to Saudi Arabia on human rights.’
All of which gives the impression that up until this moment, the West has somehow been bullied by Saudi Arabia into betraying its own values. Indeed, Cohen even says, ‘Europe…is starting to find that moral stands in foreign policy are luxuries it can no longer afford. Saudi Arabia has been confident throughout that Sweden needs its money more than it needs Swedish imports.’
This entire affair highlights the myths and stories that the West tells itself regarding its supposedly unflinching stance on human rights, a stance it claims to support and export around the globe.
The truth, however, is that the wealth and progress enjoyed in the West often comes at the expense of others. Sweden, along with most of Western Europe and the United States has long been a diplomatic ally of Saudi Arabia and has turned a blind eye, not only to the kingdom’s iron-fisted rule at home, but to its own “intolerable interference” in the affairs of its neighbouring Arab countries.
Indeed, the West has not only remained largely silent, it has actively funded theocratic and authoritarian regimes because it has been politically and financially beneficial to do so.
Sweden, it may surprise many to learn, is the world’s twelfth largest exporter of arms. That’s right. This tiny Nordic country that is synonymous with liberalism, progress, and women’s rights has made billions of dollars by selling weapons to oppressive regimes.
What kind of a moral stance can such a country really claim? For decades, despotic Middle Eastern governments have used weapons acquired from the West to keep their populations in line. This fact is not lost on the Arab people. As I have previously written, ‘They are well aware of how their oppression is funded and where the tear gas that poisons their eyes when they dare to protest is manufactured.’
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, this applies not just to its own people, but also to dissidents in neighbouring countries. Already this year, Saudi Arabia has used those western weapons to drop bombs on Sana’a, Yemen, one of the Middle East’s oldest and most stunning cities, in order to crush the Houthi rebels – a Shiite militia opposed to the rule of the Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In 2011, at the height of the so-called Arab Spring that so very briefly signalled the possibility of a new era of hope for the region, Saudi Arabia rolled its tanks in Bahrain, ruthlessly crushing the fledging protests by that country’s Shiite majority calling for an end to the Sunni monarchy.
As reported in Al Jazeera, those protestors in Bahrain held up empty tear gas canisters stamped “Made In USA.” In the five years preceding the Arab Spring, more than twenty governments, ‘sold more than $2.4 billion worth of small arms, tear gas, armoured vehicles and other security equipment to the five countries that have faced – and violently combated – popular uprisings: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.’
Human rights violations, including the subjugation of women by Saudi Arabia (and other regimes) are not, therefore, something that has arisen independent of and despite the efforts of the West. And yet, the western world still positions itself as a saviour, particulary of Arab women.
The West can’t have it both ways. It cannot claim to be feminist and support human rights when it is western money and weapons that have helped make these violations possible.
That’s not to say that Wallsrom’s intention isn’t laudable and she is certainly not personally to blame for the support her country has given the Saudis in the past.
But coming so long after Sweden has helped Saudi Arabia entrench itself on the world stage, it not only smacks of too little too late, it amounts to another case of the West wanting its cake and to eat it too. That is, to brand itself as the champion of human (and especially women’s rights), even after it has profited from the violations of these rights for so long and to such lucrative effect.
This disconnect between our actions and our words is not limited to areas of foreign policy and conflict.
Our clothing is produced by third world sweatshop labour that has cost lives. Our insatiable thirst for the latest technology affects the mental and physical health of those who make it for us, and those who have to live with the e-waste we send back to the developing world. Even our chocolate is often produced by child slave labour.
And though we would not dream of making our own children work at the age of eight, we supply flimsy excuses to defend the child labour in countries where other people’s children make the sporting goods our own kids play with.
More than ever, we need to realise the interconnectivity of the world and how the poverty and oppression that mars so much of the globe is not an unfortunate circumstance outside of our control, but is the price others are made to pay for our comforts and our freedoms.
As for Sweden’s brief stance against Saudi Arabia, The Guardian puts it best in their editorial on the subject: ‘it can be no more than symbolic…the private Swedish company Saab still plans to sell the Saudis anti-tank missiles.’
As her Twitter handle describes, Ruby Hamad is a “Vegan. Feminist. Writer.“ Hailing from Sydney, Ruby’s writing often focuses on feminism and race. She writes regularly for Fairfax’s Daily Life website (her story archive is here), for ABC’s The Drum website (archive here), and is currently working on her first book. Follow her on Twitter on @rubyhamad. (photo by Onni Elliott)