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Germany reduces arms sales to Saudi Arabia

November 13, 2019

Germany drastically cut arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the first six months of 2019 — but did not cut them completely. The government had pledged no more sales after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Saudi-Arabien US Kampfjet Symbolbild
Saudi fighter planeImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Nureldine

The German government approved two arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the first six months of the year, worth a total of €831,003 ($915,817), according to Economy Ministry figures released on Wednesday. Details of what was sold were not included in the report.

In the equivalent period of 2018, Saudi Arabia was Germany's third biggest customer, after Algeria and the United States, mainly buying naval boats. Chancellor Angela Merkel's administration approved five arms sales to the Middle Eastern kingdom from January to June 2018, worth a total of €161,874,673.

Saudi Arabia has continually been accused of human rights abuses, and the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul prompted a public outcry that led Germany to pledge to end arms exports to the kingdom.

The government had already pledged to end arms exports to "countries directly involved in the Yemen War" in its coalition contract made in early 2018, though some sales have continued since.

That pledge has since softened, as old arms deals are still being honored, and exports of arms goods that wouldn't directly be used in the conflict are still being allowed. Saudi Arabia is also still buying weapons that are partially German-made, such as the Eurofighter plane and the MBDA ground-to-air missile systems that are built by a consortium of European companies.

Infografik deutsche Waffenexporte EN

Read more: Germany exports weapons to Saudi-led alliance in 2019

New record in overall deals

This year's top customer has so far been Hungary, which bought over €1.7 billion worth of tanks and tank parts, and Egypt, which has bought over €800 million worth of mainly rocket systems.

Meanwhile, data revealed earlier by the Economy Ministry in response to a Left party information request showed that in the first 10 months of 2019, Germany authorized €7.4 billion in arms exports, closing in on a new annual record. 

The current record is from 2015, when the government authorized €7.9 billion in arms exports, and it is possible that figure will be overshot before the end of the year.

In a statement accompanying its annual report, the Economy Ministry insisted that the total value of arms exports was not an accurate measure, since single large contracts (for example for submarines and tanks) can lead to big year-on-year changes. "For this assessment, it is necessary to consider the individual approval decisions, with reference to each country, the kind of defense equipment, and the expected purpose of the goods," the ministry said.

But the government's answers also showed that the it rarely blocks an arms deal: In the January-to-October period of both 2018 and 2019, less than one percent of applications from German arms firms were denied: a total of 88 in 2018 and 56 in 2019, out of over 11,000 in 2018 and 9,900 in 2019.

"Nearly every request is a winner," said Dagdelen in a statement. "If you apply for a weapons export contract, it will be approved. That's not authorization policy, that's rubber-stamp policy."

The figures were revealed in response to an inquiry filed with the ministry by Left party politician Sevim Dagdelen. The report shows that €2.3 billion in weapons of war and a further €5.1 billion in arms-related materials were approved before October 31 this year.

By mid-2019, Germany had already authorized €5.3 billion in arms exports, surpassing the total annual figures for 2018 of €4.8 billion.

The figures indicate arms export contracts that have been approved for the future and not actual exports.

The hometown of Heckler & Koch

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier defended the difference by pointing to the political stalemate that followed elections in 2017, saying it caused a delay in decision-making and a consequent jump in export figures for 2019 that "only seems surprising."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight