Sweden arms sales boom raises questions over its customer list

Critics claim nation is more inclined to arm regimes that are accused of human rights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 May, 2014, 9:12pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 May, 2014, 4:18am


Alongside a global reputation for peacemaking and generous foreign aid, Sweden has become a major world supplier of weapons, including to regimes criticised for human rights abuses.

Ranked third for arms exports per capita after Israel and Russia, Sweden's booming industry has stirred ethical concerns at home about some countries with which it is doing business.

Against this backdrop, Saab technicians are building an assembly line for the next generation of Gripen fighters equipped with state-of-the-art warfare systems and larger weapons bays.

The Gripen E, designed to stand up to Russia's best planes, boasted a networking system allowing planes to communicate and divide up tasks such as detecting, electronic jamming and firing, Saab operations chief Lars Ydreskog said at the production plant in Linkoeping.

"It was this tactical way of working that was noticed by Brazil and Switzerland," he said, referring to the recent selection of Saab's fighter jet over French and United States competition.

Saab and other Sweden-based firms including BAE Systems and Bofors have been hugely successful in the 2000s, last year alone selling weapons and defence material to 55 countries to the value of US$1.8 billion.

But critics claim that Sweden has become more inclined to arm regimes accused of human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, as demand from Western nations has declined since the cold war ended.

"Swedes see themselves as very ethical and restrictive when it comes to giving human rights violators or dictators things that help them stay in power. But the reality is that has happened," said Siemon Wezeman, an arms expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

"In the past decade or so they have been more open to it, because those are the markets," he added.

"In the past they wouldn't have done business with Saudi Arabia due to human rights concerns … it's obviously a place that rings all kinds of alarm bells ... but that has changed... They've sold them Eriye [radar tracking systems] and anti-tank missiles and marketed other weapons there."

Other sales have been clandestine.

In 2012, Swedish public radio revealed that the national defence research agency had provided Saudi Arabia with covert technical support for a missile factory, leading to the resignation of a defence minister and the launch of an inquiry into new ethical criteria for future weapons sales.

One of the most controversial Swedish exports, the Saab-made Carl Gustav rocket launcher that is used by United States and other armies around the world, has reportedly fallen into the hands of groups that Sweden would not trade with, including Myanmar's military and al-Shebab Islamists in Somalia.

Peace activist Martin Smedjeback said Sweden's original reason for developing a large weapons industry, the desire to be self-sufficient and independent, had vanished, along with the country's policy of neutrality as it developed closer ties to Nato.

"Politicians raise the issue of jobs and technology because there are all these other arguments that they cannot use, like 'it's macho and I like macho things'," Smedjeback said.

"And they also can't say that the weapons industry is powerful and they have influence over the decisions of politicians."

Also, at least 30,000 people are employed in the Swedish defence industry, many in towns where arms factories are the largest private-sector employer.