From Saab to Sida: Development Aid and the Arms Trade

3 mins read

By Massimo Lambert-Mullen

In Linköping, there is a massive concrete complex, towering over a small highway on the outskirts of town. Multiple gates, barbed wire fences and security cameras give the impression of a Bond villain’s lair, hidden in plain sight. It is adorned with an enormous blue and red logo, depicting a crowned griffin that can be seen from downtown. ‘Saab Technologies’, it reads. A sign on the fence prohibits photography. The defense industry can never be too careful.

In Stockholm, there is a glass and brick building bordered by rows of trees and a park. It is friendly and transparent, and it is the center of the Swedish aid industry. The colorful logo, printed in large Helvetica font, reads Sida, an acronym for the Swedish state development aid agency. Although it is two hundred kilometers from the factory in Linköping, Sida is more closely linked to the weapons industry than you might expect.

The arms industry employs around 30 000 people in Sweden, making it a valuable economic force and tax base. Saab group is the poster-boy of the Swedish Arms industry, although it is better known for its daughter company Saab Auto, a car manufacturer. According to Saab’s 2015 report, 80 percent of Saab sales are defense-related products. Saab sells a variety of military equipment, from Gripen fighter jets to Erieye radar surveillance systems to the famed Carl Gustav rocket launcher. Their best clients include Thailand and Saudi Arabia, both of which are autocracies accused of human rights violations.

The most prominent example is Saudi Arabia, which has been a controversial topic in Swedish politics. In March 2015, Stefan Lӧfven gave in to political pressure urging him to end the military-industrial partnership with Saudi Arabia, creating a diplomatic rift between the two countries. In October 2016, Lӧfven visited the rich autocracy with the CEO of Saab Group. Together, they discussed trade deals with Saudi officials and, in an attempt to repair diplomatic relations, Lӧfven praised the infamously misogynistic nation’s efforts to promote women’s rights. In this situation, Lӧfven prioritized Saab’s profits over Sweden’s humanitarian agenda. While Swedish politicians and journalists have chastised their government for its sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia, it is also notable that Saab sells defense material to military aggressors in the West, including the US.

Although Saab’s military equipment only makes up a small portion of the extensive armories of Western superpowers, these sales are significant, relative to Sweden’s small population. In 2014, Sweden was the third largest weapons exporter per capita, after Russia and Israel. Last year, Saab’s net income was 1.2 billion Swedish krona. Because of the profitability of the arms industry, one can assume that Saab’s taxes are circulated into Sida’s ‘conflict prevention and peacekeeping’ aid programs. This aid money is then distributed in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Palestine — countries that Saab’s customers, namely the US and Saudi Arabia, have invaded or destabilized. Saab also arms states that are militarily opposed to Sida’s ‘peace and security’ aid recipients. Swedish-made weapons have already found their way into the hands of Myanmar’s military, as well as to Al-Shabab militants in Somalia. It makes sense that conflict resolution aid is provided to war-torn countries, but it is counterintuitive that Sweden’s defense companies are simultaneously aiding and arming opposing factions in regional conflicts.

Sweden’s neutral stance in global conflicts is an important ethical consideration. Unlike their American and Russian competitors, Saab can sell military equipment to foreign states without demanding military and diplomatic allegiance. On the other hand, it allows Saab and Sida to play both sides in conflicts. This is certainly the case with Pakistan and India, where Saab sold Erieye airborne radar systems while simultaneously negotiating the establishment of Gripen jet fighter factories in India. Not only does this dichotomy tarnish the well-groomed perception of Swedish humanitarianism, it reveals a unique paper trail. The money flows in a circle, from Saab to Sida.

We cannot ignore the significance of Saab as a symbol of Swedish industry and Sida as a symbol of Swedish humanitarianism. It is also naïve to exaggerate the role of Sweden in international conflicts compared to the dominant weapons dealers and military superpowers; the US and Russia. Rather, I think that we must be critical of both sides of Swedish neutrality, and how Sweden’s economy and humanitarian reputation simultaneously benefit from conflict. Selling the tools of war to military aggressors makes the provision of aid to the countries affected futile.

By Massimo Lambert-Mullen

Illustration by Agnes Björk

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