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Saudi Arabia acquires new meaning for German town

Kay-Alexander Scholz
November 26, 2018

Germany has stopped arms exports to Saudi Arabia in order to set a global example. But for the seaside town that builds some of those same exports, the consequences can be dire. Kay-Alexander Scholz reports from Wolgast.

A tattered German flag flies over Peene shipyard in Wolgast, Germany
Image: DW/K-A. Scholz

Wolgast in November is raw. A bitter Baltic wind blows through the streets, which, come nightfall, are nearly empty of the 12,000 inhabitants. The medieval coastal town has its charms, thanks to its half-timbered homes and few new transgressions, but it is stuck in an underdeveloped region. The drive from Berlin takes one past more wind turbines in the fields than cars on the road.

A bumpy welcome awaits visitors. The street to the hotel needs repaving. "We actually need to close the street," says Mayor Stefan Weigler. His dream of refurbished roads is on hold in part due to a decision made 180 kilometers (112 miles) south, in Berlin. The federal government decided to halt weapons exports to Saudi Arabia. Those exports include the patrol boats made in Wolgast's 70-year-old Peene shipyard. That has brought big-picture geopolitics to Wolgast, too, and it has people here on edge.

Read more: Opinion: No weapons for Riyadh, right for the wrong reasons

40 sausages instead of 200

Three men are having their evening meal in a hotel not far from the shipyard where they work. As temporary workers, cheap hotels are their second home since  the commute is too far to make everyday. They ask not to be named. The area has long been a site for arms production, including ships for the East German navy during the Cold War, which means security is high.

A patched-up street in Wolgast
A portion of the money for fixing this road is available, but the town may not be able to afford to cover the restImage: DW/K.-A. Scholz

The shipyard employed 4,000 people until East Germany collapsed in 1989. Then the company went private, cut its workforce, and finally declared bankruptcy. It was saved in 2013 with the contract for patrol boats. "Each of the 300 workers here feeds three more people in the region," said one of the men in the hotel. Another man noted that far fewer sausages were selling in the shipyard cafeteria these days: 40 a day instead of 200.

'Death blow' for Wolgast

The suspension of arms to Saudi Arabia is the top issue for Stefan Weigler, who at 38 has been mayor of the town for 10 years. "When I talk about 'we' I mean the shipyard, but everyone is so tightly connected, 'we' is everything." The Peene shipyard makes up one-third of the region's industrial workforce. The boats are completed in Wolgast, requiring additional work from heating, electrical and plumbing companies – about 1,800 jobs in all.

Read more: The Khashoggi case: Arab media omit uncomfortable facts

Unemployment is not a huge concern, if not for Wolgast then at least for the dock workers. Demand for ships is booming. Neighboring shipyards are looking to fill 400 positions. Workers, especially highly specialized welders, would follow the jobs out of Wolgast. If that were to happen it would be a "death blow" for the town, Weigler said. The loss would account for one-quarter of the 2019 budget, he said.

Wolgast Mayor Stefan Weigler
Mayor Weigler is fighting for his financially strapped townImage: DW/K-A. Scholz

That concern is not only evident in the mayor's wrinkles. The owner of a local lunch stand said it was the issue foremost on everyone's minds. Many wives of shipyard workers are worried. "It's sad," said one woman who lives close to the docks. "The ships will keep getting built and delivered, just from another country."

End of production a delicate subject

The deal with Saudi Arabia calls for 34 patrol boats. Fifteen have already been completed and delivered, while another six are finished but will not be sent. That leaves 12 boats remaining, which would have otherwise kept the shipyard busy until mid-2020.

Read more: Republicans to take on Donald Trump over Saudi Arabia? don't bet on it

"They can't just pick up another contract," the mayor said. The huge construction halls are specifically designed for each contract. Without commissions, Lürssen, the parent company, could close the location.

The men eating at the hotel could only shake their heads. Germany wants to show the world how good it is, one said, but the political price for that behavior may be high. "During the last election," another said, "many people in some villages voted heavily for the neo-Nazi NPD party." Then there is the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has a higher proportion of supporters here than anywhere else in Germany.

A win for the AfD

This comes hardly as a surprise to Mayor Weigler. The AfD took more than 40 percent of the vote in parts of the town, he said pointing to a neighborhood in an aerial photograph of Wolgast where more well-off residents live. "They aren't all far-right radicals. They just have had enough. It was a political call for help."

The town has always lost out when national politics has turned its attention to infrastructure, he said, such as a decision to close an obstetrics ward despite an uptick in childbirth. The district court was also closed. "Six hundred years of tradition gone – and 85 jobs," he said. "This is terrible for me," he said, adding he was powerless to stop the closures.

An aerial view of Peene shipyard
Peene shipyard used to produce massive boats, as seen in this photo (above, right) from 10 years agoImage: DW/K-A. Scholz

Weigler said he learned of the government's decision to kill the Saudi contract from the media, not from Berlin. At the same time, the governing coalition agreement included a guarantee to complete approved arms deals, which for 2018 totals €416 million ($471.9 million) for Saudi Arabia.

"We accept the decision from Berlin. Period. But trust and consistent policies are something else," Weigler said, adding that the patrol boats have no impact on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, nor were they technically suited to be used in a blockade of Yemen.

Government should buy the boats

This month the mayor sent members of parliament an urgent letter to remind them that the fate of his town was playing out in regional politics. The state parliament was debating the issue, and the AfD saw an opportunity.

Read more: A timeline of Jamal Khashoggi's killing

Nikolaus Kramer, the head of the AfD in the state parliament, said he was surprised how little the "old parties" were involved in the issue – and retraining programs for workers in particular. "This was politics for the party platform, not for citizens," Kramer said.

The Left party has joined in the criticism. "Wealthy Germany can't leave the region out in the cold," said Barbara Syrbe, a former head of a municipal council here. "The region can't do anything about Saudi war-making and has to deal with the political blowback."

A patrol boot in the water at Peene shipyard, Wolgast
This patrol boat for Saudi Arabia sat in the water at Peene shipyard in late OctoberImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Sauer

For the AfD, the issue is "more about upholding contracts," Kramer said. The federal government is responsible and should buy the boats, he said. Otherwise, Wolgast will become just another "dependent" town in the area.

The risk of political disillusionment

Weapons are a divisive issue, said Lars Bergemann, a long-time member of the local Left party. The Left is against arms sales in principle, but at the same time "people need to eat and pay for their homes." Pragmatism, not ideology, is called for, said his party colleague, Syrbe. If Germany can help around the world, she said, what about here? "Where is the state premier? Or the chancellor?"

Meanwhile, Mayor Weigler has called for crisis meetings on the shipyard's fate – one happening soon in the area, and one later in Berlin. Only then can representatives and ministries determine the next steps.

Germany's oldest shipyard back in business