Germany's chancellor visits the Gulf states this weekend. Energy is high on the agenda and, despite these countries' dire human rights records, experts say a more realistic, nuanced attitude toward them is needed now.
For former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, human rights were a key issue during a meeting with Saudi Arabia's king in the city of Jeddah in April 2017.
Saudi Arabia is an attractive business partner, Merkel said at the time, but the country has some "deficits" when it comes to the human rights situation.
Five years later and now Merkel's successor, Olaf Scholz, is visiting the region. The German leader will be in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, then travel to the United Arab Emirates and Qatar on Sunday, before returning home.
Radically different landscape
Scholz's visit comes at a time when things are radically different from when Merkel made her trip, both in terms of politics and the dramatically altered situation with Germany's energy needs. Thanks to the reduction in deliveries of Russian gas and oil due to the war in Ukraine, Germany has become more dependent than ever on alternative suppliers. It's clear that Scholz is visiting Saudi Arabia, the world's second-largest oil producer, as a supplicant — at least partially. Which is why observers are already questioning what emphasis Scholz can place on human rights when he meets with the Saudi leadership.
Despite all the modernization and reform of the past few years, the human rights situation remains dire in Saudi Arabia. This was demonstrated by two recent prison sentences — totaling 34 and 45 years — for two Saudi women, whose crime was to "like" and retweet statements on social media that were critical of the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia trying to rehabilitate international image
When Scholz meets with the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he will be meeting the man who is responsible for all of the above.
The crown prince has been behind a drive to modernize the country and encourage more everyday freedoms. However, he is also considered to be behind much of its brutal repression — in particular, the gruesome 2018 assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies believe the crown prince personally approved of the slaying.
Also making the crown prince look good is the recent prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. The Saudis are said to have played an important role in the negotiations for the swap.
The politics around Scholz's visit to the Middle East are clearly sensitive. All the countries he is set to visit have what Germany desperately needs — that is, gas and oil — but they're also regular rule breakers when it comes to international human rights law.
"It is clear to see that this situation requires a 'realpolitik' approach," said Sebastian Sons, a researcher who focuses on Saudi Arabia at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient in Bonn.
Realpolitik is defined as a system of politics or principles based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations.
"But Saudi Arabia is, and will remain, a problematic partner because the German public sees any engagement with the country as an issue," Sons explained.
This was made clear to Economy Minister Robert Habeck when he went to Qatar in May to negotiate more gas supplies to Germany. The rather low bow that he made to the Qatari commerce minister earned him a lot of criticism back home.
But Germany urgently needs more gas. Habeck said earlier this week that he believes Scholz will be able to sign some contracts to this end in the United Arab Emirates. Reports suggest that a deal with Qatar is coming along nicely, and that long-term supply contracts are a possibility.
Germany looking to diversify cooperation
There are also other issues to be discussed, the chancellor's office said on its website. These include more cooperation in innovation and information technology, with regional security also likely on the agenda.
Saudi Arabia has been trading with Germany for a long time already. In 2021, the total volume of trade between Germany and Saudi Arabia was valued at €4.5 billion ($4.42 billion), Germany Trade and Invest reported, with the most important product being oil. That made up around 36% of Germany's imports from Saudi Arabia, followed by chemical products and raw materials. The top German exports to Saudi Arabia were chemical products, machinery and auto parts.
One of the product groups that the Saudis would like more of from Germany remains restricted, though. In November 2018, the German government under Merkel limited weapons exports to Saudi Arabia because of, among other reasons, that country's participation in the war in Yemen. Exceptions were made, however, for joint projects with military allies, which led to accusations of German hypocrisy.
'Willingness to cooperate with Europe, and with Germany'
Germany does also have something to offer its partners in the Middle East, Simon Engelkes, a desk officer with the Middle East department at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin pointed out.
The US has pulled back from the region somewhat and, given its long-running enmity toward Iran, Saudi Arabia is trying to expand and diversify its foreign policy and business alliances, Engelkes told DW.
"In doing so, the kingdom is looking east and also west," he said. "There is a willingness to cooperate with Europe, and with Germany in particular."
Saudi Arabia has an ambitious program called Vision 2030, which includes building entire cities, motorways and train systems. This will require cooperation with Western nations.
"There are definitely aspects for cooperation there for the German government," said Engelkes. "Germany enjoys a good reputation in Saudi Arabia when it comes to technology and business, as well as in science and culture."
It would be advisable for Germany to rethink its policy toward Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, added Sons, who recently published a book on human rights in Qatar ahead of the upcoming World Cup football tournament.
"You have to define what works and what doesn't," said Sons. "Where are the red lines that cannot be crossed?" For example, arms deliveries might well be one, he argued.
But there are plenty of other areas for cooperation, he continued. "Not only in the energy sector but also in culture, sports or in development, for example," he said. "It would also be possible to cooperate in the management of migration," he added, referring to refugees fleeing war and violence in the region. "Qatar is already an important partner in this regard."
It's important the Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states not be so demonized in Germany, he concluded, calling for a more nuanced debate. "Then it will be possible to reconcile the interests of realpolitik with human rights concerns, as well as other values," he said.