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Germany’s Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen used her appearance at the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain between 9–11 December as an opportunity for a visit to Saudi Arabia. She sought there to strengthen a relationship that – at least in Germany – is often overshadowed by controversies regarding defence sales and human rights concerns.
The German defence minister caused an international Twitter storm by not covering her hair as she met several Saudi government officials, including Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defence Mohammed bin Salman.
But for von der Leyen, who also serves as deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and is often tipped as a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the visit was about much more than matters of protocol.
The German government sees the relationship with Saudi Arabia as essential to its defence and security policy and as an area for expansion going forward.
Central to this relationship is, of course, the issue of German arms exports to the Kingdom. In the first half of 2016, these totalled over €480 million, including spare parts for Saudi fighter planes and the delivery of the first of 48 patrol boats for the Saudi Navy.
Yet this is only a fraction of the German weaponry originally coveted by Riyadh. Earlier this year, the planned sale of up to 300 ‘Leopard 2’ tanks was cancelled; and Heckler and Koch, which maintains an assembly factory in Saudi Arabia, has long been unable to obtain a licence to import parts for its G36 assault rifle from Germany.
This is partly due to Germany’s restrictive arms export regulations, which place high emphasis on the assessment of the human rights record of the potential buyer. Arguably even more important, however, especially in the case of exports to Saudi Arabia, is domestic political pressure.
Commenting on von der Leyen’s visit to Riyadh, a spokesman for the opposition Green Party called for a complete stop to defence sales to the Kingdom, citing especially the war in Yemen and the resulting humanitarian crisis. Alexander Neu from Die Linke, a left wing opposition party, even rejected the very notion that Germany should engage at all with Riyadh, accusing it of supporting and financing terrorists.
Von der Leyen was therefore clearly aware of the scrutiny to which she would be exposed during her visit to Saudi Arabia. An internal ministry memo, obtained by Der Spiegel, warned that ‘any cooperation’ with Saudi Arabia would be sure to attract criticism. Consequently, von der Leyen and her Saudi hosts appeared to make a concerted effort to keep defence-related issues at the bottom of the agenda – or confined to behind closed doors.
Von der Leyen spent a lot of time with Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri, the Saudi deputy economy minister, and officials from the education ministry to learn about the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform programme. She also met a number of young female entrepreneurs. She later approvingly commented that she had ‘encountered a country that is modernising’.
Returning to her actual ministerial portfolio, von der Leyen inspected the newly built – and still mostly empty – headquarters of the Saudi-led Islamic Alliance to Fight Terrorism. With bin Salman she also discussed training a small group of Saudi Arabian officers at the German military academy, and the Saudi request for a German officer to be deployed to the headquarters of the Islamic Alliance.
While the former appears likely to go ahead, the latter is more questionable, or, as the memo puts it, ‘politically and technically difficult’, This is because it would essentially make Germany a supporting member of the alliance, which currently includes 39 mostly Sunni Muslim countries and lacks a clearly defined mission and remit.
While defence exports to Saudi Arabia remain extremely sensitive and joining the alliance may still be a step too far for Germany, von der Leyen’s visit is the latest sign that Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East in general, have become increasingly important areas of focus for German foreign policy.
At the 2014 Munich Security Conference, German President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier and von der Leyen herself, declared that Germany should and would adopt a more active role, especially in Europe’s eastern and southern neighbourhoods.
Since then, this – and the impact of crises in the Middle East on German security – has only intensified with the emergence of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) and the refugee crisis.
In terms of military operations and explicit defence and security cooperation, Germany still prefers other partners in the region to Saudi Arabia. German Tornados are conducting surveillance and reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Syria as part of the US-led anti-Daesh coalition; and the Bundeswehr is arming and training Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Under the Ertüchtigungsinitiative (Enable and Enhance Initiative) Berlin is spending €230 million over two years to strengthen the capabilities of countries such as Jordan and Tunisia.
Jordan, where von der Leyen stopped on her way back to Germany, is set to receive €88 million of these funds, for example in the form of 50 Marder tanks to secure its northern border with Syria.
From the relationship with Saudi Arabia, the German government is hoping for something else. During her speech at the Manama dialogue, von der Leyen called for the international coalition against Daesh to broaden its approach to more explicitly include the ideological, social and educational domains of radicalisation and extremism. This, the minister said, should be led by the ‘leaders of Islamic countries’, most importantly those of Saudi Arabia.
It is a widely held belief in Germany (and beyond), that elements of Wahhabi Islam, a central foundation of the Saudi state, are key contributors to the extreme fundamentalism espoused by jihadi groups around the world.
However, while many German politicians would therefore prefer to turn their backs on the Kingdom, the government is sensibly taking a different route. Von der Leyen’s visit to Riyadh can therefore also be seen as an endorsement and encouragement of the Kingdom’s modernisation and reform efforts, as well as the younger generation of Saudi leaders around the Deputy Crown Prince.
Although German–Saudi relations are unlikely to translate into a particularly warm friendship in the near future, there is recognition in Berlin – and this appears to be reciprocated in Riyadh – that close cooperation between the two countries is essential.
Banner image: Earlier this year, Germany cancelled a planned order to sell 300 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia due to political pressure. Courtesy of Bundeswehr-Fotos.