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Germany and its ‘bull in a china shop’ diplomacy

Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador in Berlin for consultations last Saturday, on the same day as the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a strongly worded statement critical of comments made earlier in the week by Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.
These unusual moves were triggered by Gabriel’s comments in Berlin after a meeting there with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. Gabriel said he “could not tolerate the adventurism that has spread there,” which was understood to refer to Saudi Arabia’s policy toward Lebanon and in particular to issues surrounding Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation on Nov. 4.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry summoned the German Ambassador in Riyadh, Dieter Walter Haller, to protest at Gabriel’s “disgraceful and unjustified” comments. The ministry also issued a statement critical of Gabriel’s “erroneous” remarks, which “astounded and stunned” Saudi Arabia. The “haphazard statements were based on faulty information and do not serve the region’s stability,” and were “inconsistent with the policies of the German government, which Saudi Arabia considers a reliable partner in the fight against terrorism and extremism, and in the ongoing efforts undertaken to safeguard peace and security in the region.”
In this case, the German foreign minister was way off, as Hariri was quick to prove. He said on social media last Saturday: “To say that I am held up in Saudi Arabia and not allowed to leave the country is a lie. I am on the way to the airport Mr. Sigmar Gabriel.”
While Gabriel's comments were the trigger on this occasion, it is not the first time recently that German policy toward the region has veered away from the regional and international consensus; it has gradually shifted away from the global fight against terrorism toward seeking to appease Iran, despite Tehran’s continued destabilizing activities in the region. In 2015, immediately after the nuclear deal was signed, Germany rushed to make trade and investment deals with Iran. In July 2015, Gabriel himself became the first senior figure from any large Western country’s government to visit Iran since the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was signed only days before. At the time serving as the Federal Minister of Economic Affairs and Energy, he was the first high-level German government visitor to Iran in 13 years, traveling with a delegation of German industry representatives seeking access to the Iranian market. The trip was probably naive and counterproductive, as Germany appeared ready to turn its back on its traditional partners in return for a paltry, uncertain reward. German trade with Iran was only about $3 billion in 2016, a year after sanctions were lifted, compared with over $30 billion in trade with the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in the same year. Iran’s touted potential is limited; its GDP amounts to no more than 25 percent of the GCC’s. The GCC is Germany’s second-largest export destination and Saudi Arabia alone is Germany’s third-largest export destination.

While other Western countries focus on Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism, Germany’s top diplomat appeases Tehran in a naive and futile attempt to boost trade.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Also in 2015, Gabriel lashed out publicly against Saudi Arabia’s legal system and its judiciary, causing a strain on diplomatic relations. Later that year, Gabriel publicly accused Saudi Arabia of supporting religious radicals and funding mosques that he accused of breeding dangerous Islamists. In those and other cases, the minister, at the time Minister of Economic Affairs, eschewed diplomacy and sought quick political or electoral gains at the expense of long-term mutual interests.
After he became Germany’s foreign minister in January 2017, appeasement with Iran intensified, overlooking its growing activities to support terrorism and destabilize the region, and the unprecedented growth of its ballistic missile program since the nuclear deal was signed. 
While the US and France, with other key powers, have restored the focus on Iran’s missile program and its support for terrorism, Germany’s policy toward the region sought to reap mercantile benefits instead. Perhaps to justify its controversial appeasement of Iran, it voiced criticism instead of Iran’s adversaries, acting almost as an apologist for Iran’s destabilizing activities and support for terrorism. A case in point is Yemen, where German diplomats undermined the UN Special Envoy, opening an alternative channel with the Houthi militia; this is something that the GCC has raised repeatedly with the German Foreign Ministry.
In June 2017, Gabriel told Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper that US policy in the region was “extremely dangerous,” criticizing in particular GCC-US military cooperation. It was inexplicable why Germany would be alarmed by GCC states buttressing their defenses against growing threats from Iran. 
Within Germany as well, the recent shift in its regional policy and its style are not universally supported, as became evident to me in recent meetings with German experts and officials. One expert likened Germany’s new approach to a “bull in a china shop,” upsetting the delicate balance that Germany maintained in the past. The new policy threatens to undo the careful work of previous German diplomats, including President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was foreign minister for many years before assuming the presidency this year.
• Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is a columnist for Arab News. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @abuhamad1