German Leopard tanks on display at a weapons trade fair in Abu Dhabi in 2017.

Arab world
Germany and the Middle East – a tale of morals and markets

Germany's foreign policy is explicitly values-based. But what happens, Ralf Bosen asks, when democracy, the rule of law and human rights collide with the logic of trade and business?

On its homepage, Germany's foreign ministry lists "peace and security, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and commitment to multilateralism", as the guiding principles of German foreign policy. Just a few lines later, however, it says that Germany, as a trading nation, has a particular interest in an effective foreign economic policy "that helps companies to tap into international markets and to improve the conditions for doing business".

Germany seeks to strengthen democratic values that are guided by human rights. It also pursues its national interests – as is the norm for all foreign policy worldwide. Taken by itself, this is unproblematic. Things become awkward however, when these two basic principles collide. When the market clashes with morality. A seemingly impossible balancing act that particularly characterises Germany's relations with the Arab states.

It is perhaps no surprise that the German government welcomed the mass protests and striving for democracy in what became known as the "Arab Spring" – even if that movement by and large ended in failure and frustration. It is moreover commonplace to hear German politicians condemning human rights abuses in the Arab-speaking world, including torture, the incarceration of opposition activists and the oppression of women. Germany also took in some 770,000 Syrian refugees and provided rapid and unbureaucratic support for many at a time of great suffering and need.

At the same time, though, Germany has worked hard to build trade ties with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Countries that – in view of their human rights records – Germany should perhaps really be shunning. And above all, representatives of business and politics are all too often willing to turn a blind eye to the lucrative trade in military equipment. And worse, say critics. Defenders of this approach, on the other hand, speak of the possibilities of change through trade. An argument that is especially rejected by the Greens, Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

Chancellor Angela Merkel poses for a selfie with Syrian refugee Anas Modamani in 2015 (photo: Anas Modamani)
Good relations with the Arab states are vital, if only because of the high volume of refugees: "In 2015, we witnessed how events in the Middle East as a whole, including in north Africa, can dramatically impact the domestic situation in Germany," recalls Guido Steinberg from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. But the German government remains divided on most issues. There is even a certain reluctance among German politicians to be pinned down. "You will be hard pressed to find a politician who will tell you that it is in our interests to ensure that no more refugees arrive from these countries," adds Steinberg

Dramatic impact on domestic policy

According to Middle East expert Guido Steinberg, relations with the Arab states are of vital interest to Germany owing to the high volume of refugees alone. "In 2015, we witnessed how events in the Middle East as a whole, including in north Africa, can have a dramatic impact on the domestic situation in Germany," recalled Steinberg who works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

But the German government remains divided on most issues. There is even a certain reluctance among German politicians to be pinned down, says Steinberg in interview. "You will be hard pressed to find a politician who will tell you that it is in our interests to ensure that no more refugees arrive from these countries. And that we have an interest in fighting terrorism. For that we need certain preconditions, yet that particular debate can't be said to be taking place in Germany."

Germany therefore needs to come up with a clearer definition of its interests. Steinberg outlines three priorities. Firstly: preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Secondly: avoiding large-scale refugee flows by boosting regional stability. And thirdly: an effective anti-terrorism strategy.

Also among those calling for a more "robust approach towards the Arab world" is Kerstin Mueller, a Middle East expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Speaking in interview, she first and foremost questioned the reasoning behind arms sales to the United Arab Emirates: "The UAE is Germany's biggest trading partner in the region. The two sides even maintain what is termed a 'strategic partnership'. And although the UAE is deeply immersed in the Yemen war, it can still purchase arms from European and German sources."

Arms exports worth billions

Germany, it seems, has few inhibitions when it comes to arms deals with questionable partners. That is the conclusion to be drawn from a statement issued earlier this year by the Economics Ministry in response to a question put forward by the Green Party. According to the statement, in the year 2020, the German government gave the go-ahead for arms exports worth around 1.16bn euros to countries embroiled in the conflict in Yemen or Libya: for Egypt, exports of arms and military equipment worth 752 million euros were approved.

Yemenis attend the funeral of victims of a Saudi-led airstrike, in Saada, Yemen, 13 August 2018 (photo: AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
Berlin's arms policy is not only inconsistent, it also contravenes its own guidelines for exports of military equipment, which in times of conflict or crisis prohibit the delivery of military equipment to so-called third countries. As Mueller points out, "although the UAE is deeply immersed in the Yemen war, it can still purchase arms from European and German sources"

Large-scale deliveries of military equipment were also authorised to Qatar (305.1 million euros), the United Arab Emirates (51.3 million euros), Kuwait (23.4 million euros) and NATO member Turkey (22.9 million euros). In addition, permits were granted to Jordan (1.7 million euros) and Bahrain (1.5 million euros).

Kerstin Mueller is also highly critical of potential deals with Saudi Arabia, which have, however, been temporarily put on hold – a measure that Mueller believes should have come much sooner: "After the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia came under a lot of pressure and a moratorium was put on arms deals," she says. "In my opinion, though, its role in the Yemen war or even its troubling human rights record would have sufficed to put a blanket ban on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia."

Not only is Berlin's arms policy inconsistent, it also contravenes its own guidelines for exports of military equipment, which in times of conflict or crisis prohibit the delivery of military equipment to so-called third countries – defined as neither European Union nor NATO members (or "NATO-equivalent", such as Australia).

"For me that is the politically decisive point," Mueller said. If Germany wants the Arab world to take notice of its stance on human rights and the rule of law, then "it needs first of all to adhere to its own legal foundations and political principles." Germany, she said, was weakening the role it could have in the region, "because the Arab countries naturally also know what has been decided and what the bottom line actually is."

Meanwhile, there is growing pressure within Germany for a reappraisal of the country's Middle East policy. German foreign policy has always been a balancing act between interests and values, argues SWP researcher Guido Steinberg. But this has intensified in recent decades and years. "Simply because values have become more important in the domestic debate, partly due to the rise of the Greens, who have had a major influence," says Steinberg.

German arms technology on the ground in the Yemen conflict (source: Deutsche Welle)
Kerstin Mueller, a Middle East expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations is convinced that if Germany wants the Arab world to take notice of its stance on human rights and the rule of law, then "it needs first of all to adhere to its own legal foundations and political principles". Germany, she said, was weakening the role it could have in the region, "because the Arab countries naturally also know what has been decided and what the bottom line actually is"

Time to assume more political responsibility

Germany is facing a tense parliamentary election at the end of September that will also signal the end of Angela Merkel's 16-year term in office as German chancellor. Whoever emerges as the next leader is going to have his or her work cut out for them in dealing with the United State, which looks set to keep up the pressure on Berlin to play a more decisive role on the international stage.

It looks likely that Germany will increasingly be expected to take on more responsibility – including in the Middle East, where it has so far had a minor role as a conflict mediator, such as in Libya.

The global community is facing an unprecedented existential challenge in climate change, which can only be contained or combatted if markets and morals are made to augment each other. As in so many parts of the world, the Middle East, too, is threatened by a spiralling number of extreme weather events that Stefan Lukas describes as "accelerants for already-existing problems". His fear is that the region will be further destabilised, pushing more and more people to join the many refugees already trying to make their way to Europe.

"And that of course leaves us facing a big problem. Because if we start telling Libya, Saudi Arabia, or UAE to leave their oil in the ground, they are not going to be amused. After all, their revenues are mainly derived from fossil fuel sources," cautions Lukas, a lecturer at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff Academy for the Middle East in Hamburg

 

Stefan Lukas says there is no alternative to aligning markets and morals: "The bottom line is that it is both a moral and economic imperative for Europe to help the countries of the Middle East come up with new options and new incentives, including economic incentives."

Climate change can, he adds, become a pathway towards multilateral peacebuilding.

He maps out an ambitious vision: "A co-ordinated environment and climate agreement could spark a move towards greater political cooperation. And that, in turn, could help us to build a bridge between morals, on the one hand, and market-driven egoism on the other."

Ralf Bosen

© Deutsche Welle 2021

More on this topic