The media’s fixation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s uncovered head seized the spotlight in her otherwise characteristically discreet visit to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi earlier this week. Her low profile is a good analogy for Germany’s post-war approach to the Middle East and the world more generally: Sober, assertive only on trade matters, and willingly punching below its weight.
Yet some things seem to have changed since Merkel’s previous visit to the Saudi capital in 2010. Challenges and opportunities emanating from the Middle East, coupled with a shift in attitudes at home, have been driving a gradual transformation of Germany’s regional role. This promises to increase its relevance in the Gulf and the wider region, and not only on the business and trade fronts.
In March 2011, Germany’s abstention in the UN Security Council vote that approved a no-fly zone over Libya prompted a debate in Germany about its global position. The point of contention was not so much the pros and cons of the military intervention to protect the armed opposition to Muammar Qaddafi.
There was displeasure with Merkel’s government siding with Russia and China while giving the cold shoulder to its traditional NATO allies such as France, the US and UK. The resolution even had the backing of the Arab League.
Germany’s foreign policy establishment saw this moment as vexing, a deliberate step toward irrelevance. As a result, the Foreign Office conducted a major foreign policy review, published three years later. It concluded that the country needed to be more willing to assert its interests in global politics.
Germany was one of the six powers involved in negotiations with Iran leading to the nuclear deal in 2015. Apart from concerns about nuclear proliferation and the strategic aim of breaking European dependence on Russian gas imports, German actions on the Iranian nuclear file seem to have been heavily influenced by the goal of restoring economic relations with the Islamic Republic.
Attesting to the eagerness to re-establish full economic ties with Iran — before the imposition of international sanctions, Germany was Iran’s biggest trading partner — the vice chancellor and minister for economy and energy, Sigmar Gabriel, visited Tehran just a week after the nuclear deal, with a delegation of business executives and lobbyists.
Her discussions with Saudi and Emirati leaderships included the search for diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the role and rights of women, investment and support for local efforts at economic diversification, and the resumption of talks on an EU-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) free-trade agreement.
A warning by Germany’s domestic intelligence agency in 2016 about ongoing Iranian efforts (including extensive illicit activities in Germany) to acquire material for its nuclear program did not deter the leap toward Tehran.
While the nature of Germany’s mercantilist foreign policy remains the dominant factor in its relations with Iran, the Syrian crisis opened up new questions about the European power’s hands-off approach, and further pushed Germany’s rethink of its ties to the Middle East.
Merkel’s admirable stance of welcoming hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees brought closer to home the effects of a devastating conflict that would otherwise feel quite distant to most Germans. Terrorist attacks by Daesh across Europe, and the ensuing scaremongering by populist and far-right politicians about migration and the refugee crisis, gave it even more prominence.
In 2014 came the decision to arm and train Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Iraq, seen in Berlin as the most effective and reliable fighting force against Daesh. This move was surprising for German standards, given the constitutional restrictions on the use of the army overseas and longstanding skepticism among the public about military interventions.
Then there is the substantial increase of German arms sales to the Middle East under Merkel. While the overwhelming majority of these exports went to Israel, particularly since 2011 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Oman have been important recipients.
Merkel’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the UAE a few days ago should be seen as part of an effort to deepen ties with Germany’s leading trading partners in the region. Her discussions with Saudi and Emirati leaderships included the search for diplomatic solutions to the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the role and rights of women, investment and support for local efforts at economic diversification, and the resumption of talks on an EU-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) free-trade agreement.
Other developments such as Brexit may contribute to Germany’s growing relevance for the Gulf. With the exit of a key partner of the Arab Gulf states from the EU, and with political uncertainty promising to stick around in France following the presidential election, Berlin is likely to become even more influential on key Middle East decisions by the European bloc.
Everything suggests Germany’s more visible regional policy and its closer involvement in economic, political and security issues in the Gulf are not a temporary trend. Instead, it corresponds to a deeper, if gradual, foreign policy shift.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a leading political analyst, providing research and consultancy services focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He can be reached on Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida.