“What I feared most”, said the former Swedish minister of defense during his final press conference last week, “was receiving a text message that another Swedish soldier had died in Afghanistan.”
The defense minister also spoke of his two year old son who enthusiastically used to shout “Daddy!” whenever his father appeared on national television. Recently the toddler had panicked and tried to turn the TV off.
Last week Sten Tolgfors, Sweden´s defense minister since 2007, decided to call it quits. Preparing for his televised press conference, Tolgfors obviously had been advised by his spin doctors to play the emotional card, bringing up his own and his family´s Angst, but also emphasizing a job well done, cutting costs and getting favorable marks from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Sweden is not a member of Nato but has diligently provided troops for the ISAF forces in Afghanistan and JAS Gripen aircraft to help topple Colonel Gaddafi in Libya.
What toppled Mr Tolgfors were disclosures on Radio Sweden a couple of weeks ago that there is a far-reaching Swedish commitment to build a weapons factory in Saudi Arabia
In spite of its reputation as a peace-loving nation, Sweden is a major producer and exporter of arms. The Bofors gun became famous during World War II.The anti-tank weapon AT 4 was praised by US officers in Vietnam as a very efficient weapon against the enemy once known as “Viet Cong” and seen as ideal for urban warfare in places like Falluja in Iraq. Recently Saudi Arabia and Pakistan bought Ericsson´s EyriEye radar system, useful among other things for bombing Somali pirates off the coast of East Africa.
Of course, peace-loving Sweden does not really want to sell arms to customers who might actually use them. In the 1980s, there was a ban on Swedish arms sales to the Middle East. This the Bofors company avoided by smuggling its renowned product Robot 70 via Singapore to the Emirates of Dubai and Bahrein.
The Middle East sales ban has since been lifted, but there is renewed concern among the right-minded that Saudi Arabia may not be the paragon of democracy and peace, preferred as the ideal customer for Swedish arms. In fact, last year Saudi Arabia intervened to crush the Arab spring, as it emerged in the Emirate of Bahrein, a Saudi ally.
Sweden’s present-day non-Socialist coalition claims it is carrying out the same policies as its Social Democratic predecessor. It is true that a memorandum of understanding was signed between Sweden and Saudi Arabia in 2005, when the Social Democrats were still in power.
According to the memorandum, both parties have committed themselves to start joint projects for the composition or production of military equipment. This would be more like a consultancy business on which there has never been a ban. But Sweden´s present government seems to have felt that plans for building a Saudi arms factory, even though it was not strictly forbidden, was a touchy issue about which Mr Tolgfors felt he had to keep mum. To carry out that kind of joint Swedish-Saudi projects, a secret company was created, baptized Simoom after the dust-laden desert storm which often afflicts North Africa and the Arab peninsula. Whether this was legal or not is being investigated by the Swedish special branch.
Sweden’s defense industry has a long history but is in fact no longer particularly Swedish. Until recently, Bofors and a string of other arms producers in Sweden were owned by the US conglomerate United Defense which in turn was controlled by the Carlyle Group, an illustrious association of former politicians and businessmen. In the Carlyle Group one could find George Bush senior, Frank Carlucci, the former US secretary of defense, the Saudi prince Alwaleed Sin Talal bin Abdulazis Alsaud and, surprise! surprise! members of the Bin Laden family. Later on, United Defense has been replaced as owner of the major Swedish arms producers by Britain´s BAE Systems.
BJÖRN KUMM is a journalist based in Malmö, Sweden.