1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites
Großbritannien Proteste gegen die Hinrichtung von Nimr Al-Nimr in Saudi Arabien
Image: Reuters/T. Melville

Should Germany stop exporting arms to Saudi Arabia?

Dana Regev
January 4, 2016

Despite official condemnation of Saudi Arabia's executions, many wonder why Germany doesn't take action against the kingdom. Critics think arms exports to the country should have been stopped a long time ago.


Many countries have condemned Saudi Arabia's execution of Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr together with three other Shiites and 43 alleged members of al Qaeda.

The Saudi embassy in Tehran was even attacked by protesters, and in response, countries including Bahrain and the UAE backed Riyadh by bringing their diplomats back from Tehran.

Germany, France and other world powers have urged Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage in dialogue - but many wonder if words are enough. Even as Western powers like Germany condemn Saudi Arabia's policies, they continue to export arms to the country, and thus benefit from its conflicts, critics claim.

Germany's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Martin Schäfer said at a news conference that Germany opposes the death penalty, but added that he is "unaware of any government plans to impose sanctions for this reason."

In the first half of 2015 alone, Germany approved a number of arms exports to the Gulf region, despite concerns about conflicts and human rights violations. Among the exports approved were 15 patrol boats for Saudi Arabia.

The latest report showed that the value of Germany's arms sales, the world's fourth-biggest arms exporter, was 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) in the first six months of 2015 - compared to 2.2 billion euros in the first half of 2014.

Infografik Deutsche Rüstungsexporte 2014 und 2015 Englisch

Restrictive policy?

"In 2008 the German government gave a license to Hecker & Koch [a leading German gun-maker] to manufacture G36 rifles, so the company made tens of thousands of them and they are now used by the army of Saudi Arabia," Jürgen Grässlin, a German anti-weapons activist, told DW.

"From a moral point of view this was a criminal act, because these small arms - as they are called - are the deadliest weapons on earth. Small arms have killed millions of people every year in wars and conflicts," he says.

But according to the Economy Ministry, Germany is only supplying Saudi Arabia with 4-wheel-drive vehicles, protective parts for armored vehicles, drones and launchers - but no tanks, machine guns or automatic weapons.

"We have a very restrictive policy regarding the approval of weapons to be delivered to this region, and to Saudi Arabia in particular," says Andreas Audretsch, a spokesperson for the German Ministry of Economy.

"The case of 'Heckler & Koch' is a good example," he says. Audretsch was referring to a lawsuit the company filed against the German government for failing to approve the export of parts needed to produce the G36 in Saudi Arabia. "The case shows that in recent months and years the policy is very restrictive," Audretsch said.

Grässlin is not impressed by this. "Our Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel told his voters before the 2013 election that when he is in power there will be no weapons exports to countries that violate human rights, but you see what happens now," he complains.

Iran Saudische Botschaft in Teheran gestürmt
Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Arabia embassy in TehranImage: picture alliance/dpa/M.-R. Nadimi

"In 2014 he doubled the weapon exports from 915 million euros (about $988 million) to 1.8 billion euros, including to countries that are violating human rights or are in war. This step was meant to support the German weapon industry, and for that you have three reasons: profit, profit and profit."

The Economy Ministry argues that the decision of how much and to whom Germany exports its weapons is not a question of economy, but of the situation in each particular region, adding that there is no German economic interest in the pure sense of the word.

According to Grässlin, this is not entirely true. "In the past few years the German arms industry has been in a crisis," he says, especially because the German army - the Bundeswehr - is reducing its orders.

Grässlin claims that arms companies are now searching for new countries to sell arms to, as well as aiming to increase consumption among countries that already use German weaponry.

"Germany delivers weapon [sic.] to the United States, knowing that it is in war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and so on," he says. "Germany also delivers arms to NATO partners." But what surprises him is that Germany is sending arms to what he calls "third states" - countries that are neither members of the EU or NATO, such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman - all of whom are good customers for German weapons.

"Germany profits from all the instability in that region," Grässlin stresses, "and military forces in these countries love German weapons because they are usually accurate and advanced."

Saudi-Arabien König Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Saudi King Salman has been a good customer for German weaponsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Saudi Press Agency

A weapon-free world

For Grässlin, the main problem is the hypocrisy around military industries. "We always say that Germany is a country which stands for humanity, morals and ethics. Sometimes we do - but this coin has a back side to it, a dark side. And the dark side is giving weapons to dictatorships all around the world."

But despite his intensions, one might claim that Grässlin's aim - for a major industrial country to completely shut down its arms industry - is not only optimistic, but naive.

"Some 30 years ago I was asked whether it's realistic to stop all weapon exports. What I said back then is that I'd like to stop all exports of small arms, ban all land mines and ban cluster bombs - and people looked at me as if I were an alien," he recalls.

"And now, there is an international ban on land mines and cluster bombs and we have the international ATT, a sort of control on conventional weapons, so we are on the right way," he said.

Grässlin says he knows it's idealistic to ban weapons sales in the Middle East and Asia - but claims it's the only way to bring peace to these regions. "As Germany, we need to say that because of human rights, because of humanity, because of morals - we stop the distributions of weapons," he said. "That would be a start."

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, turned to his side, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, fully clear, in this picture

Russia to store tactical nuclear arms in Belarus

Skip next section More stories from DW
Go to homepage