The Middle East is one of the most highly militarized regions in the world. Germany is among those supplying weapons to governments there. Because of human rights issues, that's controversial.
When Saudi Arabia pushed for an arms deal with Germany in December 2012, the opposition of Social Democrats and Greens was outraged, while chancellor Angela Merkel from the Christian Democrats remained silent. Then, it was about NBC armored reconnaissance tanks, battle tanks and armored transport vehicles. Now, with Saudi Arabia wanting to purchase patrol ships for 1.5 billion euros (2.01 billion Dollar), reactions are mostly the same. Opposition and experts worry about the implications such deals have for the questionable human rights policies in countries like Saudi Arabia.
Stability vs. Human Rights in the Middle East
According to the German "Rüstungsexportbericht" (Arms export report) 2011, Saudi Arabia placed 12th among the largest importers of German arms. They received military equipment worth 1.3 billion euros. But they are not the only country in the region to be supplied with weapons from Germany. Other recipients include United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Algeria and Israel.
The Middle East is one of the most highly militarized regions in the world, according to the Global Militarization Index (GMI). "You have to be very careful about who you're selling weapons to in the Middle East," warns armament expert Christian Mölling of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in an interview with DW.
The German government believes Saudi Arabia to be important for stability in the region, but admits that there are differences of opinion when it comes to human rights. Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle stresses that the topic frequently comes up in discussions with Riyadh, but that's not convincing for some experts. In 2011 for example, Saudi Arabia sent tanks and troops to Bahrain to help the reigning monarchy strike down the people's protests during the Arab Spring.
"Our government seems to be ok with exporting to countries where the state of human rights is questionable or even miserable," Jan Grebe, researcher at the Bonn International Center for Conversion (BICC), says. He adds that the German government hasn't fully explained yet why it is willing to put aside the issue of human rights when it comes to a good export deal.
Even though Saudi Arabia mostly managed to evade the Arab Spring, the country wants to be able to smother any potential protests. There are also speculations that the Saudis want to arm themselves against Iran, their arch-enemy. "Many countries in the Middle East perceive Iran to be a danger, but that doesn't mean that the German government should support the neighboring nations' armament," says Grebe. He believes that disarmament and trust-building measures in the region would be better ways of action for Berlin.
Iran pushes forward with its nuclear program, which could lead to military action from Israel, as the country sees its very existence threatened by Iran. Israel is close to chancellor Merkel's heart, and she has declared the Jewish state's security a matter of high importance to Germany. When Egypt under President Mohamed Mursi ordered submarines from Germany last year, Berlin promised Israel that delivery would be halted if Egypt showed any signs of "animosity" toward Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Israel itself receives submarines from Germany that can be upgraded to nuclear weapons. "That's a contribution to Israeli stability," Christian Mölling from the SWP says. "This way, Israel is ready to defend itself."
Keeping German Arms Producers Strong
It is, however, highly questionable whether an arms race in the Middle East really leads to more stability for the region. BICC researcher Grebe has his doubts: "Military goods are durable goods, and nobody knows today how political constellations will change tomorrow, or into whose hands the weapons might fall."
That is why the German opposition demands a new law to restrict arms deals. The head of the Green parliamentary group, Jürgen Trittin, insists on a law that prohibits military exports to countries that "endanger German security and the security and human rights of their people." But a deal like this would not go over well with the arms industry, which has been pushing exports to the Middle East and other so-called third-party countries. The push seems to be a long-term trend, which has its roots in the shrinking demand from smaller armies in European countries and the European financial crisis.
Mölling has another reason: "The German arms exports serve mainly as a means to insure that Germany itself can keep buying high-grade military goods from local producers." The more money German arms producers make with their exports, the more goods they can produce. And Berlin is very keen on the continued production of high-end military technology in Germany.