|Sten Tolgfors, left, the Swedish defence minister, says there is no record of any such deal [EPA]|
Sweden has been secretly helping Saudi Arabia plan the construction of an arms factory to produce anti-tank missiles, the Swedish national broadcaster has reported.
The Swedish Defence Research Agency (known by its Swedish acronym FOI) has co-operated with Saudi Arabia since 2005, though construction on “Project Simoom” has yet to begin, Swedish Radio reported on Tuesday, citing hundreds of classified documents and interviews with key players.
Denying the existence of the project, Jan-Olof Lind, the FOI director general, told the radio station: “We do not have a project agreement with that country.”
While Sweden has sold weapons to Saudi Arabia in the past, classified government documents show that the current project “pushes the boundaries of what is possible for a Swedish authority”, the radio reported.
“The fact that an authority such as FOI is involved in the planning of a weapons factory for a government in a dictatorship such as Saudi Arabia is quite unique,” the radio said.
Asked specifically if there has been a Project Simoom with Saudi Arabia, Lind replied: “No. And I do not wish to comment on discussions that may or may not have occurred between Sweden and Saudi Arabia. These discussions are classified.”
Several former FOI employees, however, have confirmed the existence of the project to Swedish Radio, including Dick Straeng, who said he led the project until 2010.
“If I were to contradict your claims I would have to say that the documents you are showing me are fakes, and they are not,” he said when presented with the classified material.
He said the Swedish government was fully aware of the plans.
“Here is a document that the director general signed and sent to the ministry,” he said.
The defence ministry refused to comment on the radio’s report because of the classified nature of the project.
“I can’t comment on the co-operation,” Haakan Jevrell, the state secretary, told the radio.
The radio station claimed that FOI set up a shell company in order to avoid any direct links between itself and the Saudi government.
“FOI has, as far as the defence ministry knows, no collaboration with the company mentioned in the radio report,” Sten Tolgfors, the Swedish defence minister, wrote on his blog.
“There are no government decisions giving FOI a mandate to build a factory for weapons production,” he added.
Fredrick Reinfeldt, the Swedish prime minister, addressed the issue only briefly on Tuesday.
“The government is responsible for ensuring that legislation and regulations are in place and followed, and I presume that the responsible authorities have respected the law,” he told news agency TT.
The co-operation deal with Saudi Arabia was struck in 2005 when the centre-left Social Democrats were in power, but was renewed in 2010 by the current government, the radio report said.
The co-head of Sweden’s opposition Greens Party has demanded an investigation take place into the reported deal.
Tolgfors, the defence minister, has been reported to the parliament’s KU committee, which scrutinises ministers’ handling of government affairs.
“KU must examine whether the defence minister’s actions are in line with Sweden’s democratic ideals and international commitments,” Gustav Fridolin said in a statement.
He said a Swedish collaboration with Saudi Arabia would not be beneficial for democracy in the world or Swedish interests.
“Sweden should not ruin its good reputation by supporting the militaries of dictatorships,” he said.
Another opposition party, the Left Party, has called for a special parliamentary debate.
Deputy Prime Minister Jan Bjorklund, who is head of the second largest ruling party, the Liberals, in the centre-right coalition government, said he had been against the co-operation deal with Saudi Arabia under which such a plant would fall.
“Sweden should be able to export military goods to democracies, not to dictatorships,” he told reporters.
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a member of the largest coalition party, the Moderates, told public radio that he supported continuing co-operation with Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is Sweden’s largest trading partner in the Middle East.