New MENA-strategy risks damaging Sweden’s credibility

Gaza: Photo: Emad El Byed/Unsplash.

DEBATE. The Swedish government’s new strategy for the Middle East and North Africa is misguided when it equates Islamism with extremism. It is also misguided, when it does not mention the word occupation in relation to Palestine and when it puts Sweden’s interests before the needs of the recipient countries. The risk is that the new strategy for development cooperation will instead damage Sweden’s credibility in the region, writes Martin Nihlgård and Eman Siam from the organisation IM. 

The opinions expressed in the articles are those by the authors.

The recent months and even years decisions taken by the Swedish government have weakened support for Palestinians.   At the end of 2022, the government decided to almost halve aid to Palestine. In October 2023, in the midst of Israel’s war against Hamas, the vital development aid was paused. For over five months. Then, in January this year, as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsened day by day, Sweden withdrew its support to the UN Refugee Agency for Palestinians, UNRWA. 

The government has finally decided to lift the freeze on development aid. But about the same time they presented their new MENA-strategy -– which unfortunately means less money for Palestine and Palestinian society.  

This at a time when aid is needed more than ever. 

All this jeopardises Sweden’s credibility and good relations with all the constructive forces in Palestine. 

The new strategy emphasises the importance of democratic development in the region, increased respect for human rights and increased gender equality. These are key values that IM shares, and these values are important to promote in themselves. They need not, or even should not, be linked to Sweden’s own political objectives.  

The starting point for aid must always be to promote economic development and welfare in the recipient countries. Aid should be given based on the needs and priorities of the recipient countries, rather than the donor’s own political or economic interests. This is where the government falls short. Starting from self-interest risks leading to poorer aid and to mistrust of the donor’s actual intentions.


This starting point of self-interest also goes against one of the stated objectives of Sweden’s strategy: to create greater awareness of and strengthen confidence and credibility in Sweden in the region. There is a risk that parts of the new strategy now lead in the opposite direction. Confidence in Sweden, Sweden’s intentions and Sweden as an aid actor could be undermined, not least in Palestine.  

The clearest example of this is that in the 13-page document the government does not mention the word occupation at all, but talks about a conflict. In what other occupied countries would it even be possible not to mention this as a problem? It ignores the significant impact that the occupation has on the daily life of Palestinians and on their human rights. Sweden’s failure to mention this obviously damages credibility.  

Another troublesome example is when the government equates Islamism with extremism. In the Swedish debate, the word Islamism has often become synonymous with violent and militant Islamism, or fundamentalism and lack of democracy. But not all Islamism is undemocratic or militant. Within the Islamist movement there are moderate democratic parties that clearly distance themselves from violence. The choice of words in the strategy and the equation of Islamism with extremism can, at worst, be interpreted in the Arab world as a condemnation of Islam and Muslims rather than of the extremism the government seek to condemn. In a world where racism against Muslims is getting worse, this is a bad thing, and it does not strengthen confidence in Sweden in the region. 

Already on the first page of the strategy it is stated that Sweden has an interest in counteracting migration and promoting return. We at IM see this as possible positive side effects of strengthened democracy and an end to the occupation.  

Unlike the Swedish government, migration policy is not the driving force in what IM does; our driving force is human rights. 

Martin Nihlgård
Secretary General IM 

Eman Siam
Regional Director of IM in the Middle East 

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