The World From Berlin: Berlin 'Playing With Fire' in Saudi Tank Deal

The German government's approval of the sale of "Leopard" tanks to Saudi Arabia has outraged opposition parties in Berlin, and the ruling conservatives aren't happy about it either. Commentators say the deal undermines principles of German foreign policy and could exacerbate the crisis in the Arab region.

Everyone wants one: A Leopard 2 battle tank during exercises. Zoom
DPA

Everyone wants one: A Leopard 2 battle tank during exercises.

German opposition parties are running riot against the government's reported decision to allow the sale of up to 200 of the most modern "Leopard" battle tanks to Saudi Arabia.

The co-leader of the Green Party, Claudia Roth, said the decision, first reported in SPIEGEL, was a "blatant" breach of German guidelines banning the export of weapons to states in crisis regions and with questionable human rights records. She said Saudi Arabia flouted democracy and human rights, supported terrorism and had helped to crush recent anti-government protests in Bahrain.

Andrea Nahles, the general secretary of the center-left Social Democrats, said supplying battle tanks to Saudi Arabia flew in the face of the government's pledge to pursue a value-oriented foreign policy. The head of the Left Party, Klaus Ernst, said the government was operating under the motto: "The most deadly tanks for the worst oppressors."

More worrying for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the move has also been criticized by members of her own party, the conservative Christian Democrats. Reuters reported that a majority of the leadership of the party's parliamentary group had argued against such a deal at a meeting on Monday evening.

The senior conservatives had included the chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz, and the president of the Bundestag, Norbert Lammert. They mainly cited human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia. According to Reuters, Lammert had argued that Saudi forces used tanks to quell unrest in Bahrain just a few weeks ago.

So far, the government has declined to confirm the export approval, taken by the government's security council last week. Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said on Monday the decision was subject to the "usual and necessary secrecy" regarded export approvals.

For decades, Germany has refused to sell battle tanks to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states because of its historical obligation towards Israel and its policy of prohibiting the sale of weapons to crisis regions.

So far, Israel has made no public comment on the deal, suggesting that it has no fundamental objections, German commentators say.

Most editorials in the German media are critical of the deal on Tuesday, but some point out that a supply of powerful battle tanks may help Saudi Arabia preserve a balance of power with Iran, which is pushing for dominance in the region. But commentators also concede that if Iran gets hold of nuclear weapons, even the most formidable battle tanks in the Saudi arsenal will prove irrelevant.

Conservative Die Welt writes:

"Of course it's not the best time for a large tank deal with Saudi Arabia given the Arab rebellion. After all, Riyadh is one of the worst suppressive regimes in the region and has been helping to crush the uprising in Bahrain. But the outrage among opposition parties in Berlin is a little short-sighted. After all, Leopard 2 tanks are pretty unsuited to fighting rebels, unless one is trying to destroy whole cities like Moammar Gadhafi. Besides, Riyadh needs the tanks for quite a different reason: to counter Iran's attempts at domination in the Gulf region.

"For years Germany and its allies tried in vain to stop the Iranians from trying to build a nuclear bomb. Now that an Iranian bomb is becoming increasingly likely, a rearming of Saudi Arabia is only logical to prevent the balance of power in the Gulf from completely tipping in Tehran's favor."

"Last week, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal made clear that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear option if Tehran had one. It will only be possible to prevent such a nuclear arms race if one helps the Saudis to place a weighty deterrent on the scales in terms of conventional weapons."

Left-wing Berliner Zeitung writes:

"The German government's actions in the tank deal with Saudi Arabia are pitiful. The same foreign minister who refused to back a UN mandate (German abstained in the UN Security Council on establishing a no-fly zone over Libya in March) because he was against removing Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi by force has now silently voted in favor of selling 200 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Saudi Arabia."

"The guidelines of the German government on arms exports are threefold: the export of weapons is to be undertaken restrictively; it must not go to crisis regions and must not be aimed at boosting domestic employment."

"Either Saudi Arabia is no longer in the crisis region of the Middle East under the German government's definition, or Angela Merkel, Guido Westerwelle and Economics Minister Philipp Rösler no longer feel bound by these guidelines. Instead of openly standing by their decision, the center-right coalition government has fled into secrecy. Such a policy isn't value-bound, it's nefarious."

Left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:

"The center-right government is operating geostrategically and in tandem with the United States. Chancellor Merkel mistrusts the Arab Spring as much as other Western leaders. The foreign policy and economic consequences of democratization in the Arab world -- and especially of its failure -- are too uncertain."

"The supply of a fighting machine geared to waging assymetiric war against rebels and partistans follows the logic of arming Saudi Arabia in order to keep 'evil' Iran in check. But this is playing with fire because the absolutist monarchy is based on Salafism. This form of Islam is particularly intolerant -- not just towards Shiites."

-- David Crossland

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