Germany is prepared to deliver modern "Leopard" battle tanks to Saudi Arabia in a reversal of its decades-old policy not to supply heavy weapons to the authoritarian kingdom.
According to information obtained by SPIEGEL, the German security council, in which Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defense Minster Thomas de Maizière, and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle are represented, last week approved the deal in principle. The Saudis are interested in purchasing more than 200 units of the most modern Leopard version, the Type 2A7+.
German defense companies including Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, Rheinmetall and many supply firms, are hoping for a deal worth billions of dollars because the Saudis are aiming to buy brand-new tanks rather than used ones.
Riyadh had initially negotiated with Spain where the company Santa Bárbara, part of a US engineering group, makes Leopard tanks under license. But now it appears that a large number of the tanks to be purchased will be made in Germany.
In recent decades, various German governments had turned down Saudi Arabian requests to buy Leopard tanks by arguing that such deals might endanger Israel's security. But Israel's high-tech military no longer sees Saudi tank units as a threat.
Saudi Military Helped Put Down Protests in Bahrain
Nevertheless, the kingdom has not been peaceable of late. In Bahrain, Saudi forces helped to crush protests during the Arab Spring.
The "Leopard" is one of many weapons systems being exported by Germany, and the government is helping manufacturers to sell their wares around the world. India, for example, plans to buy 126 fighter jets worth 11 billion, and German ministers have been banging the drum for Eurofighters in meetings with Indian officials.
Even highly indebted Greece likes to buy weapons made in Germany, such as submarines or "Leopard" tanks. Athens has also been pondering buying Eurofighter fighter jets.
Some 80,000 people are employed in the German defense sector. The Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces, has also been involved in the international arms trade through the sale of used tanks.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the main buyers of German weapons systems in the years 2006 through 2010 were:
- Greece (with a share of 15 percent)
- South Africa (11 percent)
- Turkey (10 percent)
- South Korea (nine percent)
- Malaysia (seven percent)
SIPRI said that Germany advanced from fifth to third place among the biggest arms sellers between 1998 and 2009, even though a previous center-left government pledged in 2000 to pursue a "restrictive'" policy on exporting defense technology.
German exports have in fact doubled in the past 10 years and Germany's share of the world market rose to around 11 percent in the period between 2006 and 2010. Many of those deals had been approved by Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government before it was voted out of office in 2005. Only the US (30 percent) and the Russians (23 percent) export more.