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Guns for dictators

July 7, 2011

Germany's tank deal with Saudi Arabia has caused outrage, drawing criticism from across the political spectrum. But while the government maintains its silence, critics say it marks a sea change in arms export policy.

Protesters in front of the Bundestag
Leopard tanks can be adapted to suppress demonstrationsImage: dapd

The anonymous Saudi source probably had no idea what trouble he was causing. On Monday, the informant told a Reuters reporter about Saudi Arabia's deal to buy 200 2A7+ Leopard tanks from Germany.

The news caused outrage throughout Germany. Memories of Saudi troops suppressing Bahraini democracy protestors are still fresh, and the mood was not improved by a video posted to Youtube apparently showing how the 2A7+ can be used to break up demonstrations.

The video showed a German army demonstration of a prototype Leopard, and came complete with a voiceover explaining how the tank can be fitted with a water cannon.

Saudi Shiite protesters wearing masks
The Arab Spring has reached Saudi ArabiaImage: AP

Such deals don't raise an eyebrow in larger arms exporters like the US and Russia, but the German government has now spent three days reaping a popular whirlwind. And it's come from unexpected parties.

Renke Brahms, peace commissioner for the Evangelical Church in Germany, told the Passauer Neuen Presse newspaper, "If German Leopard tanks are being used to clear barricades and suppress demonstrations, then we carry some responsibility for violating human rights."

Concerns were even raised by prominent members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's own party, the Christian Democratic Union. According to media reports, the chairman of the foreign policy committee Ruprecht Polenz, Bundestag President Norbert Lammert and CDU human rights spokeswoman Erika Steinbach all argued against delivering the Leopards during a party meeting on Monday.

Jürgen Grässlin, spokesman for the campaign "Action Outcry: Stop the Weapons Exports" - the biggest-ever alliance of German peace organizations and churches - told Deutsche Welle: "Apart from Libya, Iran and maybe North Korea, I can't think of a country with a worse human rights record than Saudi Arabia. To export weapons there just because it is western-orientated and because it has oil is almost illegal. I would almost call it an act of barbarism."

A new precedent

This deal with Saudi Arabia is significant for historical reasons. As Grässlin points out, Germany has been exporting other weapons there for some time, and is also part of a much bigger deal to export Eurofighters to the country.

"Even Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's government delivered patrol ships, military vehicles, machine pistols and sniper rifles there," he says. "Merkel's government has exported even more weapons to Saudi Arabia, but with the export of the tanks the last taboo has been broken."

"The tanks are different," Grässlin explains. "By traditional thinking, the Leopard is a German combat tank, and the big companies involved in its manufacture are German - Rheinmetall and Krauss-Maffei Wegmann."

King Abdullah with Angela Merkel
Saudi Arabia has wanted to buy German tanks for some timeImage: AP

"In the history of the German arms trade, combat tank exports were always very controversial. Saudi Arabia has been asking for German tanks since the 1980s, but up until now all the German governments - from Chancellor Helmut Kohl onwards - have refused to allow them," he added.

Why now?

It seems particularly egregious that Germany should suddenly approve a major sale of heavy weaponry to a Middle Eastern dictatorship when the region is in massive turmoil. Grässlin points out that, were it not for this week's leak, reports of the exports would probably not have emerged until next year, which may have been a factor.

And Germany has large economic incentives for approving the deal, according to Mark Bromley, a researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). "The Free Democrats have argued that Germany is more restrictive than other European countries, and is missing out on business opportunities," he told Deutsche Welle. "Also, Germany, like other European countries, is facing falling defense budgets, leaving less money for domestic procurement from industry. This may be leading to more pressure to find markets abroad."

And there may be another motivator lurking in the background. In the past, permission to sell large weapons to Saudi Arabia was refused for two reasons, says Grässlin: "Firstly, so as not to pour gas onto the conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and secondly, because Saudi Arabia was always one of the arch-enemies of Israel, and we can't supply them with weapons because of German history."

Government spokesman Hans-Joachim Otto
Government spokesman Hans-Joachim Otto refused to talk about the exportsImage: picture alliance / dpa

There is speculation, therefore, that Israel's attitude to Saudi Arabia may have been changed by the "Arab Spring." "It seems that with the German tank deal, there was contact with the Israeli government, so apparently objections weren't raised," says Bromley. "Obviously there's a change in Germany, but presumably Israel has voiced opposition to these deals in the past and is not doing so now, so maybe there's a re-calculation in Israel as well."

Secret council

For the past few days, the German government has been avoiding questions about the deal, which was allegedly green-lit last week by the Federal Security Council, the cabinet sub-committee that deals with all arms exports. This committee, which meets behind closed doors, comprises Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and other members of the cabinet.

According to official government policy, the council is supposed to veto all weapons deals with countries that have questionable human rights records. The principle, agreed by the cabinet in 2000, reads, "Armaments exports are categorically not approved if there is 'sufficient suspicion' that the armaments in question are being used for internal repression or other continuing and systematic human rights abuses."

But Merkel, Westerwelle and de Maiziere have a perfect excuse for not answering awkward questions about the council's decision - it would be illegal. According to government regulations, all cabinet sub-committee meetings are state secrets.

This allows the government to maintain silence in the face of vehement demands for information from opposition parties. In a parliamentary question and answer session on Wednesday, Hans-Joachim Otto, parliamentary state secretary at the Economics Ministry, said the Federal Security Council always met confidentially. "That is why the government cannot take a position on the press reports about the council's alleged decisions. That has always been the case," he said.

So far, the government has not yet confirmed that the Leopard deal even took place, but as Grässlin says, the fact that they have not denied it speaks volumes.

Author: Ben Knight
Editor: Rob Mudge