German Weapons Export Controversy Military Assists in Tank Tests in Saudi Arabia

A possible deal that would see a German company deliver hundreds of tanks to Saudi Arabia triggered heated political controversy earlier this year. Now, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned that the German military is providing training on the latest Leopard 2 tanks in the autocratic country.
A Leopard II tank undergoing testing at a base in Germany.

A Leopard II tank undergoing testing at a base in Germany.

Foto: dapd

Earlier this year, a major political debate erupted in Germany when news broke that the German government had approved the possible sale of combat tanks to Saudi Arabia. In addition to being an autocratic kingdom, critics noted, Saudi forces had also supported the quashing of pro-democracy protests in neighboring Bahrain with its own tanks.

Despite the heated debate, SPIEGEL ONLINE has now learned that Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, is already providing assistance to Krauss-Maffei Wegmann (KMW), the German manufacturer of the ultra-modern Leopard 2 tanks, in military tests being conducted in the Middle Eastern country.

On July 2, at the company's request, the Bundeswehr reportedly dispatched a field officer to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where he has been assisting KMW in testing the tank's firing capabilities in the Saudi desert. The previously undisclosed information comes from a letter that Christian Schmidt, a senior official in the German Defense Ministry, sent to select members of the Bundestag, Germany's parliament.

The letter, which has also been obtained by SPIEGEL ONLINE, states that KMW is currently testing its Leopard 2A7+ tank in desert conditions in Saudi Arabia. The company, Schmidt adds, had requested the support of Bundeswehr tank soldiers on this issue of "firing safety for company tests" because the company does not have its own.

Munitions Supplies

The Bundeswehr has also provided KMW with munitions for the tank's automatic cannon. In the letter, Schmidt emphasized that although the Bundeswehr is providing support, the company is paying for the "costs of sending" the officer and of the munitions. Still, the training aid raises the question of the degree to which it might promote the Saudi's desire to buy the German tanks.

Earlier this year, SPIEGEL broke the story that the Federal Security Council, which is required to give its authorization to all weapons exports from Germany, provided its approval to a preliminary application to sell 270 tanks to Saudi Arabia. It's a move that has been staunchly opposed by the left-leaning opposition in Berlin. And even at defense contractor KMW, the company's owners are reportedly divided over whether to carry out the sale.

The German government has remained tight-lipped when questioned about the ruling, citing the secrecy of decisions made by the Federal Security Council, of which Chancellor Angela Merkel is also a member. Nevertheless, representatives of Merkel's coalition government argued abstractly earlier this year that a delivery to Saudi Arabia would serve the German interest of a close partnership with the country. The officials said at the time that the possible export to Saudi Arabia had already been discussed with Israel, thus clearing up some preliminary concerns about the deal.

Most Germans Oppose Deal

The fact that the Bundeswehr, with the permission of the Defense Ministry, is now providing KMW with assistance in testing the tank in Saudi Arabia is likely to refuel the political debate. In general, it is not unusual for the armed forces to provide assistance during defense export projects. For example, the Bundeswehr already provided support to KMW when it recently tested its Leopard tank in the United Arab Emirates.

It's a policy that the current government fundamentally supports, as well. According to the government line, it is seeking to ensure that "the industrial capabilities of core technological areas are maintained by the German defense industry." As what the government describes as a so-called "reference customer," the Bundeswehr can also provide support for the German defense industry in the "export of defense goods" in individual cases and after the conclusion of a successful export control review.

The vast majority of the German people oppose the export of the tanks to Saudi Arabia. In a poll recently published by the weekly magazine Stern, 75 percent of those surveyed said they were against it, whereas 20 percent supported the sale. If concluded, the deal would be very lucrative for KMW: If it is allowed to deliver the tanks, the deal could be worth several billion euros for the defense firm.