Germany’s post-Merkel Middle East policy: What to expect

Under Merkel, Germany exported arms to the Middle East, strengthened relations with Israel and welcomed many refugees. Will the new chancellor do things differently?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, talks to Saudi Arabia's State Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, prior to a working session at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany, Saturday, July 8, 2017 [Michael Sohn/AP]

On September 26, Germany’s general election will usher in the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign as head of government.

Merkel’s legacy in the Middle East can be assessed as twofold, often noble goals clashed with reality. After Merkel, Berlin should not be expected to significantly change course in the Middle East.

Even so, Merkel’s successor, whether Annalena Baerbock (Greens), Armin Laschet (CDU) or Olaf Scholz (SPD), will have to answer questions relating to Germany’s position on arms sales, Israel-Palestine and refugees in the Middle East.

On the one hand, Germany has been a harbinger of peace in the region, a promoter of democracy, the rule of law, championing arms control and human rights while providing refuge to individuals in peril.

On the other hand, however, the Merkel years are also synonymous with significant German arms sales into the region.

This was not driven by a grand strategy or a stringent foreign policy doctrine, but primarily by economic interests, with the Middle East being home to the countries with the highest global demand for military equipment, Thomas Jaeger, professor of international politics and foreign policy at Cologne University, told Al Jazeera.

Germany is one of the largest arms exporting countries globally, Pieter D Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told Al Jazeera.

“In 20016-2020, SIPRI estimates that Germany accounted for 5.5 percent of global arms exports, globally and 3.9 percent of arms imports in the Middle East, making it the fourth-biggest exporter,” he said.

This explains why actors such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia – despite widespread accusations that both commit serious rights abuses – have long been championed as valuable trade partners.

This dichotomy of business interests and humanitarianism under Merkel is reasonably common in international relations, Jaeger noted.

“States, especially successful states, always base their foreign policy on a solid double standard. Idealism and realism go hand in hand.

“Germany pursues the goals of not supplying into international conflicts and not supplying states that pursue foreign policy goals by military means. However, the latter seemingly does not apply to actors in the Middle East, and yet arms are sold to these states – and on a large scale.”

In 2020, the Merkel government approved arms exports worth 1.16 billion euros ($1.36bn) to countries involved in conflicts in Yemen or Libya.

The overall value of German military equipment export licences to Saudi Arabia amounted to 3.3 billion euros ($3.87bn) over the past nine years, as Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP) assessed in 2020 – even as exports to the kingdom halted in 2018 following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Israel also benefits. Merkel has repeatedly underscored Berlin’s unconditional support for Israel by declaring its security was “Staatsraeson”, or raison d’état.

Israel has received military equipment from Berlin, particularly during the Merkel years. To this day, Germany remains the second-biggest exporter of arms to Israel, accounting for 24 percent of Israel’s imports between 2009 and 2020.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel pose photographers between meetings in Jerusalem, Thursday, October 4, 2018 [Oded Balilty/AP/Pool]

These include Dolphin submarines, weapon components and technology used for Israeli tanks, speedboats, and helicopters.

Some of this technology has already been used directly in conflict. Israeli tanks with German engines were used in Gaza, and Saudi Typhoon aircraft were used in Yemen, Wezeman noted.

“In general, countries like Germany that pursue a foreign policy that strives to support peace, development and human rights should carefully and regularly examine whether their arms exports policies are truly embedded in such foreign policies – or extend economic motivations or assumptions about the role of weapons supplies in strengthening relations with and influence in states in the Middle East may have been prioritised,” said Wezeman.

Merkel’s government has never felt the urge to genuinely reconsider its policy, as the topic is not a domestic controversy.

“It is not a major issue in Germany and for the public of minor interest. However, it is a highly political point of contention, a clear right-left schema, with the right supporting the policy for economic and political reasons, and the left opposing it,” Jaeger said.

However, with the coming vote, a paradigm shift could emerge in the form of a left-wing government.

“It will be exciting to see whether a new left-wing federal government really changes arms export policy. In opposition, they – the Greens, who will almost certainly be part of the new government – certainly talk that way,” Jaeger said.

During the election campaign, foreign policy issues have been limited to pledges of maintaining Germany’s alliances and commitments in the world.

Moreover, given that the new government will probably consist of a three-party coalition, it is difficult to guess the direction such a coalition will eventually take – with one exception: Israel.

As far as Germany’s Israel policy is concerned, notable changes on its strong support for the state are hugely unlikely, Christian Hacke, emeritus professor at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology at the University of Bonn, told Al Jazeera.

“A solid and close relationship with Israel as a continuum will remain part of Germany’s Staatsraeson.”

Neither candidate will alter Germany’s status quo in the conflict between Israel and Palestinians.

Even if one were inclined to do so, the options are rather limited.

“Germany has little influence on the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the struggle itself is not one of the diverging interests in the European context,” Hacke said.

In general, it is fair to assume that the Middle East will not become a focus of German politics even after Merkel.

However, the refugee problem, “created by the West through 20 years of failed humanitarian interventions”, will require more commitment and help, Hacke said.

Here, all three candidates could make a mark as Merkel’s successor, and have indeed already pledged to do so.

Source: Al Jazeera