German-Saudi relations on the rocks over weapons sales, missionary activities

Germany has prolonged a temporary ban on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia until the end of March. While the question of whether to sell arms to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East has sprung up repeatedly in German public debates over the years, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put it back in the spotlight.1

Public critiques of Germany’s relations with Saudi Arabia are two-pronged and focus on what could be termed a set of ‘import-export’ patterns: on the one hand, Germany sends weapons to the Kingdom, supporting domestic repression violent interventions abroad; Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is said to export hard-line religious doctrines to Germany, laying the groundwork for ‘Salafi’ extremism and jihadism. Its penchant for religious expansion and ideological subversion makes the Kingdom an exceptionally unreliable recipient of high-tech military equipment, or so the critics argue.

Mending ties after diplomatic rift

In fact, accusations of Saudi support for religious radicalism have routinely poisoned German-Saudi relations. Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel regularly criticised Saudi missionary activities in Europe, as well as the Kingdom’s aggressive policy in its neighbourhood.

Some of Gabriel’s comments from late 2017 – which came at a time when German arms sales to Saudi Arabia were already hit with a temporary freeze – caused such anger in Riyadh that the Kingdom recalled its ambassador, leaving the position vacant for almost a year until September 2018.

Since then, both sides have attempted to turn a page. The German Foreign Ministry pointedly asserts that under Gabriel’s successor, Heiko Maas, the two countries have “agreed to a deepening of their traditionally good relations and thereby ended diplomatic recriminations over former Federal Foreign Minister Gabriel’s statements concerning Saudi foreign policy”.2

Freeze on arms deals after Khashoggi murder

Yet a return to normal has been hard to accomplish. Barely a month after the Saudi ambassador returned to Berlin, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul – presumably upon the orders of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Mounting public pressure has since led to a renewed freeze on arms sales to the Gulf monarchy. The freeze initially received widespread support among Christian Democrats (CDU), Greens, Social Democrats (SPD), and Socialists.3

Since then, cross-party unity has been waning, however. Politicians from Chancellor Merkel’s CDU – under new party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer – have been calling for a resumption of weapons deliveries. The SPD, junior partner in the ruling coalition government, has so far blocked this move. Hence, Kramp-Karrenbauer is accusing the Social Democrats of jeopardising Germany’s defence industry, putting its jobs and international competitiveness at risk.

Challenges and loopholes

What is more, the unilateral German arms embargo also causes tension with major European allies, as it prevents the delivery of expensive weapons-systems co-produced with Britain and France – notably the Typhoon combat jet and the Meteor air-to-air missile.4 While British and French governments have expressed anger at the German export freeze, some German commentators – such as journalist Hasnain Kazim – castigate Britain and France for pouring more weapons into an unstable region. Notably, they fear a resumption of migration movements to Europe:

At least some German policy-makers have a different perspective on continued British and French weapons sales, however: speaking off the record, an official asserts that the German government has been happy to see its European partners ramp up their arms deliveries to the Gulf monarchy. In his words, a steady supply of arms is crucial to maintaining Saudi Arabia’s stability – itself a valued German foreign policy objective.5

Nor does the official ban on arms deals mean that German companies are simply no longer involved in manufacturing weapons that end up in Saudi arsenals. For instance, human rights investigators have brought a suit against Italian defence contractor RWM Italia for complicity in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. RWM is a subsidiary owned by German defence conglomerate Rheinmetall; and despite the German weapons freeze, it continues to expand its business with Saudi clients. Moreover, the Kingdom also benefits from generous licencing agreements: since 2008, its domestic defence industry has been allowed to manufacture the German G36 assault rifle for its own armed forces.6

Saudi Arabia’s long arm in Germany?

As the Saudi regime has come under international pressure following the Khashoggi murder, investigative journalists at Deutsche Welle have asked whether the long arm of the Kingdom’s authorities could also reach Saudi refugees, activists, and dissidents who have fled to Germany. After all, the fact that Jamal Khashoggi was killed in Istanbul underscores the potentially expansive reach of Saudi repression.

Speaking to Deutsche Welle under the guise of anonymity, two female Saudi refugees described the threats they regularly receive, even as they are living in Germany. Messages sent by their Saudi families – whom they have fled from – not only utter threats to life and limb. Rather, the content of these messages also implies that families possess comparatively detailed information about these women’s whereabouts. This suggests that staff at Saudi embassies and consulates might be involved in gathering information on targets in Germany; a suspicion that was obliquely confirmed to Deutsche Welle’s journalists by other Saudi refugees.

“Fled to Germany – and still not secure from their families. What is
the role of the Saudi embassy?” – or so Deutsche Welle asks.

Concomitantly, criticism of the religious policies pursued by the Kingdom has also resumed in Germany.(( )) In fact, the Kingdom’s new strongman Muhammad bin Salman had announced that all missionary activities abroad would cease, and that the role of the clerical establishment would be curtailed. Yet although a controversial German-based Saudi-sponsored religious academy has indeed closed its doors, fears of Saudi religious agendas remain high.

These anxieties are epitomised by a claim widely picked up upon in German media and public debates: shortly after the arrival of several hundred thousand migrants from the Middle East in 2015, Saudi Arabia allegedly proposed to build 200 mosques in Germany. Commentators were quick to seize upon this as a Saudi attempt to ‘radicalise’ recently arrived Muslim refugees. The story turned out to be false, however: it had been concocted by Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar, linked to Hizballah and renowned for its anti-Saudi stance.7

The Wahhabi virus – myth and reality

The panicked public discussions responding to the supposed Saudi mosque plan vividly demonstrate the almost magical powers attributed to the Kingdom: Saudi Arabia was seen as holding an incomparably effective religious virus, liable to spread rapidly and infect every Muslim exposed to it. In spite of the Kingdom’s undoubtedly existing missionary expansionism, this caricatured picture leaves a lot to be desired.

To begin with, this narrative fails to consider why German or European (born-again) Muslims should find a Saudi-financed, Wahhabi-tinged religiosity attractive. It also fails to demonstrate how the supposed Saudi influence is working in practice: How much Saudi financing of religious institutions is actually going on in Germany? And what is the precise impact of this Saudi largesse? These are questions that no one is in a position to answer with any confidence at this stage: as a German parliamentary report recently pointed out, the size and nature of religious funding flows coming to Germany from the Gulf are unknown.8

Some scholarly contributions have consequently challenged too simplistic a picture of Saudi Arabia: they present the Kingdom not just as an ‘exporter’ of religious doctrines but also as an importer: the supposed ‘Saudi-Wahhabi’ creed thus reveals itself to be a product of the cross-fertilization of knowledges and contexts – rather than a simple Saudi creation.9

A return to the status quo ante?

All in all, unease with Saudi Arabia has been a recurrent feature in German politics. Yet in the past, both sides were ultimately eager to return to a normalised status quo that seemed, overall, mutually beneficial.

This holds above all on an economic level: German business, far beyond the defence sector, is eager to obtain a foothold in the Kingdom’s planned economic transformation. And for Saudi Arabia, Germany is the fifth-biggest export market. Whether the German weapons freeze will be left in place much beyond the end of March thus remains to be seen.

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