Saudi Arabia to stop issuing visas to Swedes after criticism

AP News
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Posted: Mar 19, 2015 12:46 PM

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia will no longer issue business visas to Swedes or renew the current visas of Swedish nationals living in the country, a senior Saudi official told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The official said the decision is in response to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom's recent criticism of Saudi Arabia's record on human and women's rights. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The move appears aimed at pressuring Stockholm to distance itself from Wallstrom's comments. She spoke out during a speech in the Swedish Parliament against the flogging of a Saudi blogger who was convicted of insulting Islam on a liberal blog he founded. She said the royal family had absolute power, making Saudi Arabia a "dictatorship" where "women's rights are violated."

Swedish companies are concerned that the escalation in tensions and the visa ban will hinder their ability to do business in Saudi Arabia, said Andreas Astrom, the communications director at Stockholm's Chamber of Commerce.

"This is going to have a vast negative impact for the companies with interest in the region," he said. "This is not good for Swedish business society and, in the long run, jobs in Sweden."

Sweden's new left-wing government recently declined to renew a defense cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, which has since recalled its ambassador to Sweden.

Sweden last year exported nearly $1.3 billion worth of goods to Saudi Arabia, making it the 18th most important exporting country for Sweden, according to the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce. Multinational companies like Volvo, H&M and IKEA operate in Saudi Arabia, as do a range of medium-sized businesses.

The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday also recalled its ambassador to Sweden to protest criticism of its neighbor Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE are close allies and members of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, an energy-rich coalition of Arab monarchies. The GCC's Secretary-General Abdullatif al-Zayani on Thursday met with Sweden's Ambassador in Riyadh to formally criticize Wallstrom's remarks as "unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

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Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Karl Ritter in Stockholm, Sweden contributed to this report.