Comments by Switzerland’s president, Ueli Maurer, about normalising relations with Saudi Arabia, despite its alleged involvement in the killing of a prominent critic last year, have caused irritation among politicians and in the media.
Asked about the issue by journalists at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday, Maurer, who holds the finance ministry portfolio in the Swiss government, said the case of the killed Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was not raised in talks with his Saudi counterpart Mohammed al-Jadaan.
“We have long since dealt with the Khashoggi case. We have agreed to resume the financial dialogue and to normalise relations,” Maurer said.
He added that Switzerland had made its position in Khashoggi case clear in previous contacts with the Saudi government.
In fact, the Swiss government in October stressed the “the need for a detailed, rigorous, and transparent inquiry”, following the killing of the Saudi critic allegedly by agents of the Saudi rulers. The exact circumstances of the death are still unclear. Several people were dismissed and a court case against 11 suspects is pending.
Switzerland also announced it was reviewing its relations with kingdom on the Arab peninsula and postponed plans for a visit by Maurer to Riyadh. In addition it said it was re-assessing a controversial contract signed by Swiss aircraft manufacturer Pilatus in Saudi Arabia.
Maurer’s latest statement caused a fair bit of irritation among his fellow ministers, and shocked parliamentarians notably on the left, prompting an outcry on social media. In the tweet below, parliamentarian Susanne Leutenegger Oberholz of the left-wing Social Democrats writes "I can't stand Maurer's statement...at least [Federal Councillor] Parmelin remains steadfast. Where is the voice of the Social Democrats? We had been the first to enforce consequences...after the Khashoggi assassination."
What’s more, both the economics and the foreign ministers indicated that the seven-member Swiss government had not discussed a policy change towards Saudi Arabia since the October statement.
It therefore appears that Maurer, keen to boost financial ties with the kingdom, expressed his personal opinion without previous consultation among the cabinet members.
Saudi Arabia is a key partner for Switzerlandexternal link in the Arab world and the Middle East region. The trade volume between the two countries was CHF2.5 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2017, according to the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
Swiss exports include mainly pharmaceutical products, watches and machinery, while Saudi oil exports to European countries indirectly cover about 60% of Switzerland’s crude oil imports.
Tiananmen and Swiss refugee policy
It is not the first time that Maurer has chosen a go it alone approach.
Back in 2013, when he visited China, Maurer - Switzerland’s defence minister at the time and holding the rotating presidency in the same year - officially downplayed the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
"I think we were able to draw a line under this affair a long time ago," he said on SRF public television.
This comment drew strong criticism by politicians from the left to the centre-right as well as from human rights organisations.
Maurer’s perceived lack of diplomatic awareness was also apparent in comments during the same year, when he failed to mention Switzerland’s controversial policy towards Jewish refugees during the Second World War. He later apologised for his one-sided statement.