"Arms exports cannot take place in the current circumstances," then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in October 2018 following the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul. The German government subsequently halted weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, following through on earlier promises to suspend them over the war in Yemen. The ban was repeatedly extended and, despite the change of government in Berlin in December 2021, Germany's official position remained in place for almost five years—until July, when the governing coalition headed by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a Social Democrat, announced that it was loosening the arms restrictions. Scholz's government stated that Germany's official policy of not exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia as long as the war in Yemen continues would now include an exception for "products without operational relevance for the Yemen conflict."
The German government's announcement was otherwise scarce in its details, which might well reflect the fact that it was an internal compromise among the three parties in Germany's fragile governing coalition, whose unity is being tested. The Green Party, the second-largest in the coalition after Scholz's Social Democrats, has traditionally been outspoken against weapons exports to countries engaged in armed conflict.
Still, this looks like the normalization of German weapons exports to Saudi Arabia on the eve of the five-year anniversary of Khashoggi's murder—with implications across Europe. The backtrack by Scholz's government was important symbolically and materially, coming as it did from Europe's most populous country and largest economy. Soon after the German decision was announced, the Netherlands followed suit, lifting its own curbs on weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.
This looks like the normalization of German weapons exports to Saudi Arabia on the eve of the five-year anniversary of Khashoggi's murder—with implications across Europe.
- Marc Martorell Junyent
Germany's weapons export ban to Saudi Arabia, however, was always incomplete. It did not apply to Riyadh's coalition partner in Yemen, the UAE, which together with Saudi Arabia has been responsible for extensive human rights violations in Yemen, indiscriminately bombing schools and hospitals. And Germany still approved around $1 million in arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the first half of 2019—a major cut, but not a complete halt. In 2020, Germany also provided armored all-terrain vehicles to Saudi Arabia, and last year, it approved further weapons sales, again defying the stated ban.
Although obviously imperfect, the ban still marked a certain distance between Germany and Europe's two biggest exporters of weapons to Saudi Arabia: France and the United Kingdom. France's government went as far as trying to silence journalists investigating the use of French weapons by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The U.K.'s High Court temporarily forced the British government to halt exports to Riyadh in 2019, having concluded that it had failed to rigorously assess the risks of Saudi violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. However, in a governmental review of its arms exports policy in 2020, violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen using British weapons were deemed to be "isolated incidents," and arms exports to Saudi Arabia resumed in earnest.
When justifying the decision to re-start German arms exports to Saudi Arabia this summer, Scholz stated that "the situation in Yemen has changed very much" and that "many of the involved countries have withdrawn from the conflict." The U.N.-brokered truce in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and the rebel Houthi movement, which formally collapsed after six months in October 2022 but has largely held until now, provided a narrative to support the German policy change.
While the current levels of violence in Yemen are comparatively low, and Saudi Arabia and the Houthis are still engaged in halting negotiations, Yemen remains devastated by war. It is true, as Scholz appeared to suggest, that the Saudi-led coalition that intervened in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis has progressively lost most of its members. But this is hardly the core of the issue. More important is the fact that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain deeply entrenched in Yemen—Emirati claims of withdrawal in 2020 notwithstanding.
The decrease in violence in Yemen might have provided a useful justification for Germany to relax its weapons ban, but it doesn't explain the real reasons for the reversal. The decision-making process behind the issuance of weapons exports licenses to German companies is dangerously opaque. The key decisions are taken by the Federal Security Council, headed by the chancellor and including key ministers, such as the ministers of foreign affairs, finance, defense, and economic affairs and energy. The sessions are secret, and the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, is only informed about the council's decisions after the fact and in very general terms.
Despite that opacity, the reasons for why Germany eased its arms restrictions aren't hard to decipher. The German export ban affected the French and British companies that operate joint production programs with German arms manufacturers, especially on the Eurofighter program, in which different European countries participate to produce the warplanes. France and the U.K. applied ongoing pressure on Germany to change its position, which they saw as an element of unpredictability that complicated their efforts to profit from weapons deals with Saudi Arabia.
The bigger factor behind Germany's decision to relax arms sales was its perceived need to be on good terms with Saudi Arabia—the world's largest oil exporter.
- Marc Martorell Junyent
Even so, the German government periodically allowed indispensable components to be sent to other European countries where the Eurofighter was produced. From now on, it is reasonable to expect that the German government will be even more flexible when having to decide whether German components are allowed to be used in the production of weapons in other European countries. Seen in this context, Scholz's promise that Germany will not deliver Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia looks more like a smokescreen.
But likelier the bigger factor behind Berlin's decision was its perceived need to be on good terms with Saudi Arabia—the world's largest oil exporter—because of the war in Ukraine, given how dependent Germany had been on Russian natural gas, and to a lesser extent, Russian oil. In his efforts to diversify energy suppliers, Scholz embarked on a trip to the Gulf a year ago, when he met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and announced he wanted to "deepen the energy partnership" between the kingdom and Germany. Was it just a coincidence that Scholz's government approved $35.2 million worth of arms exports to Saudi Arabia right before that trip?
Germany's defense industry also pressured the government to relax its export restrictions. Rheinmetall, a leading German arms manufacturer, which had already gotten around the weapons ban on Saudi Arabia by using subsidiary companies, even sued the German government, arguing that it had suffered economic losses as a result of the restrictions.
Yet the economic rationale for re-starting weapons exports to Saudi Arabia likely has more to do with Germany's energy needs than with the German arms industry, or even placating France and Britain. German arms exports to Saudi Arabia are less of a priority for Riyadh than French and British weapons—and certainly those of the United States. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Saudi Arabia barely made it in the top fifteen of major export destinations for German weapons from 2005 to 2015. And even from 2015 to 2018, when its arms imports increased after intervening in Yemen, Saudi Arabia was only the ninth-largest buyer of German weapons. Since 2005, combined French and British arms exports to Saudi Arabia were more than ten times the size of those of Germany, which exported fewer arms to Saudi Arabia than Spain or Canada.
Back in June, the German government adopted its first-ever national security strategy, a year after Scholz's major speech to the Bundestag in the days following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which he said represented an epochal turning point—Zeitenwende—for Germany. "That means that the world afterwards will no longer be the same as the world before," he declared, and Germany would have to adapt, with significantly more defense spending and a vastly more ambitious military role in Europe, breaking many of the taboos of postwar German foreign policy. The new national security strategy states that Germany's foreign and security policy is "values-based and interest-driven." When it comes to weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, it is clear which of the two tenets has prevailed.