Swedish and Finnish diplomats vow more Gaza support after resuming UNRWA funding

Ambassadors tell The National of hope that European support for Palestinians can counter claims of 'double standards'

Humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza is an important feature of Europe's foreign policy, said the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the UAE. Antonie Robertson/The National
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Humanitarian assistance for Palestinians in Gaza remains an important feature of Europe's foreign policy, the Swedish and Finnish ambassadors to the UAE told The National, after their countries renewed funding for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.

Finland's ambassador to the UAE, Tuula Yrjola, who also represents the country in Bahrain, said she hoped that European aid and support for Palestinians would help counter claims of “double standards” regarding the EU's approach to Israel's war in Gaza compared to other conflicts.

Both country's ambassadors also reiterated their support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

“I have been aware of the fact that there has been perhaps in this region a feeling of some double standards and I actually hope that it would be over now when not just our two countries, but the European countries are very much in support of this situation [towards a solution] in Gaza,” said Ms Yrjola, in a joint interview with her Swedish counterpart.

“For Sweden, there has been a long political engagement for a two-state solution and this [is] also the line of the European Union … So, there is a very clear humanitarian engagement from our side, as well as various political support for a two-state solution. But it's really the way out of this tragedy for Israel and for the Palestinians,” said Swedish ambassador to the UAE Fredrik Floren.

Sweden and Finland resumed funding for the cash-strapped UNRWA this month, citing the spiralling humanitarian catastrophe in the enclave. Sweden and Finalnd said the agency had taken steps to improve accountability after suspending funding following Israel's accusations that a dozen UNRWA employees in Gaza had been involved in the October 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel.

Earlier this month, Sweden said it had provided an initial disbursement of 200 million kronor ($18.8 million) to UNRWA, and would release a further 200 million kronor after receiving assurances of checks on its spending and personnel from UNRWA.

Finland will provide €5 million ($5.4 million) annually, with 10 per cent allocated to risk management, said Ms Yrjola.

“Ten per cent of that support will be directed for strengthening the organisation's oversight activities because obviously, we recognise that UNRWA is such an important factor there that it needs to continue,” she said.

Both countries were among more than a dozen that suspended payments to the UN agency in January following Israel's accusations. UNRWA employs around 30,000 people in the occupied Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria – with about 13,000 staff in the Gaza Strip.

Finland and Sweden have called for a humanitarian ceasefire and for more aid to be allowed into Gaza.

“The time for [Israel’s] self-defence is over. I say very clearly: Enough is enough now, the civilian population in Gaza needs an immediate humanitarian ceasefire,” Finland's Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen told the German media group RND in January.

Nato membership ascension

Both Sweden and Finland ended long-standing policies of military non-alignment because of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which was an irreversible turning point, the ambassadors told The National.

Sweden officially joined the Nato alliance on March 7, ending decades of post-Second World War neutrality. Sweden and Finland applied to join Nato together in May 2022, with the latter joining last year. Turkey and Hungary held up negotiations on Sweden's accession, which required unanimity from all members of the alliance.

“In these dangerous times, Sweden’s and Finland’s membership of Nato makes the situation in our part of Europe more predictable. It raises the threshold for an armed conflict in our neighbourhood. It increases security and stability both for us and for our allies,” said Mr Floren, who presented his credentials to UAE President Sheikh Mohamed a day before Sweden officially joined Nato.

“Finland's and Sweden's accession to Nato was … a clear signal to Russia that President [Vladimir] Putin cannot close Nato doors to new members. It had always been Finnish policy to keep our own door open in case of the need, and the need became very apparent,” Ms Yrjola said.

Finland had long been ambivalent towards embracing western institutions while adopting a more conciliatory attitude towards its neighbour Russia, with which it shares a long border. But according to Ms Yrjola, public opinion began to change quickly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago.

“The public opinion in Finland turned towards recognising that Nato membership would guarantee our security better. It's clear that Ukraine's rightful place is in Nato. We hope that and expect the Nato summit in July to send a clear message of commitment to Ukraine [and] its Nato membership when it, of course fulfils the conditions,” she said.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said members of the alliance must boost their military aid to Ukraine as Kyiv’s forces struggle to hold the line against a fresh Russian advance.

“The Ukrainians are not running out of courage, they are running out of ammunition,” Mr Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels earlier this week. “Together we have the capacity to provide Ukraine with what it needs, now we need to show the political will to do so.”

Regional trade ties

For both newly appointed ambassadors, their tenures in the region will be marked by their commitment to enhance the long-standing ties with the UAE and Gulf partners.

Total trade between Sweden and UAE last year reached more than $1.3 billion, while the annual inflow of Swedish foreign direct investment (FDI) to the UAE remained steady between $290-$390 million during the last six years, according to its ambassador.

“During my tenure in the UAE as ambassador, I will strive to further broaden our bilateral relations. We have had a number of Swedish ministerial visits to the UAE lately and I would very much like to encourage Emirati visits to Sweden. In these challenging times, it’s important to learn from each other’s experiences and perspectives,” Mr Floren said.

The UAE is also Finland's largest export partner in the Gulf and Middle East region, according to its envoy.

“Finland’s trade has been growing well year on year. For example, our trade in goods to the UAE grew from €171 million in 2021, to €307 million in 2022, to €338 million in 2023,” the Finnish ambassador said.

Updated: April 09, 2024, 10:47 AM