In April 2017, then-Chancellor Angela Merkel was in no doubt: “Of course, human rights will also be drilled through,” she said at a meeting with Saudi King Salman in the port city of Jeddah. For the chancellor, it was obvious: Saudi Arabia is an attractive partner economically, but has considerable “deficits” when it comes to human rights, as Merkel openly put it to a Saudi audience at the time.
Five years later, her successor Olaf Scholz is traveling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – albeit in front of a partly radically changed political backdrop and on the occasion of a dramatic change in their own energy policy needs: Due to the discontinuation of Russian oil and gas supplies, Germany is more urgent than ever to use alternative energy sources. partner dependent. To a certain extent, Scholz comes – at least in part – as a petitioner. Political observers are already asking themselves: Against this background, what status will the Federal Chancellor be able to accord to human rights?
Dismal human rights record
The topic is of great relevance, because despite all the modernizations in recent years, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains extremely deficient, as recently demonstrated by two prison sentences of 34 and 45 years respectively imposed on Internet users. The offense of the two Saudi women: They had liked and retweeted some politically unpopular tweets.
When Scholz now meets the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MbS) in Riyadh, he encounters exactly the man who stands for both: for at least cultural modernization of the country with more everyday freedoms – but also for a gloomy human rights record, culminating in the assassination of the Saudi regime critic Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018, in which the US secret services had determined that the crown prince was personally involved.
Crown Prince strives for recognition
Of course, MbS has been fighting for its international rehabilitation for quite some time. The meeting with Scholz, including the resulting photos, should be just as helpful to him as the meetings with US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron. Added to this is the recent exchange of prisoners between Russia and Ukraine, in which Riyadh is said to have played an important role.
View of the Tanadschib oil plant in Saudi Aramco in the Persian Gulf: Oil from Saudi Arabia as part of the energy for Germany
All of this makes the Chancellor’s trip next weekend politically very sensitive: He has to talk to partners in Saudi Arabia, but also in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who on the one hand have exactly what Germany urgently needs: energy sources in the form of gas and oil – and which, on the other hand, regularly violate international human rights standards.
Germany needs oil and gas
“You can see very well that this situation requires a realpolitik approach,” says Saudi Arabia expert Sebastian Sons from Bonn’s ‘Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient’ (CARPO) about the dilemma of the political decision-makers in Berlin. “But Saudi Arabia is and will remain a problematic partner, as any engagement there is viewed critically by the German public.”
Economics Minister Robert Habeck found out just how difficult relations are not just with Saudi Arabia, but with the majority of the Gulf States in general, when he traveled to Qatar in May of this year, also driven by German energy needs, to negotiate future gas supplies there. The somewhat deep bow he made to the country’s trade minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Kasim al-Abdullah al-Thani, drew considerable criticism at home.
deference? Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck greets Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Kasim al-Abdullah Al Thani, Qatar’s Minister of Trade
But gas from the Gulf region is urgently needed. Scholz will certainly be able to sign some contracts for liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the United Arab Emirates, Habeck said earlier this week. According to reports from news agencies, talks with Qatar are also said to have progressed and agreements on long-term contracts will soon be possible.
But other topics are also at stake: In addition to energy policy talks, the agenda will probably also include intensifying cooperation in the areas of innovation and IT as well as questions of regional security, the Federal Chancellery informs on its website.
Long-term trading partner
Saudi Arabia has long been a trading partner of Germany. In 2021, the value of imports and exports was 4.5 billion euros, reports the business information company ‘Germany Trade and Invest’ (GTAI). Crude oil is the most important import good at around 36 percent, followed by chemical products and raw materials. The largest items in German exports are also chemical products, machines and motor vehicle parts.
However, Germany is not supplying one of the goods coveted by the Saudi government, namely weapons – at least not to the desired extent. As early as November 2018, the then Merkel government had largely stopped such exports, partly because of the Kingdom’s involvement in the Yemen war. However, she allowed exceptions for joint armament projects with allies, which is why critics at home accuse her of “hypocrisy”.
Saudis looking for a partner
In any case, despite its own energy needs, Germany is not just acting as a supplicant in the region, says Simon Engelkes, an expert on the Gulf States at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin. It also has something to offer itself. In view of the increasing US withdrawal from the region and the strained relationship with Iran, Saudi Arabia is making efforts to expand and diversify its foreign and economic policy alliances. “The kingdom looks to the east, but also to the west. And there is also a willingness to cooperate with Europe and especially Germany,” says Engelkes.
Plans and partners: Saudi Arabia is also dependent on western partners for its modernization projects
With a view to its ambitious economic modernization agenda, summed up in the “Vision 2030” formula, the Saudi leadership has recognized that it is dependent on Western partners. “There are certainly points of contact for the federal government here. Germany enjoys a high reputation in Saudi Arabia technologically and economically, but also scientifically and culturally,” said Engelkes. This would offer many opportunities for Germany’s economy in particular.
Red lines instead of demonization
It would be advisable for Germany to fundamentally rethink and reorganize its policy towards Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, says Sebastian Sons, who recently published a book on human rights aspects in relations with the Gulf states (“Human rights cannot be bought : Why the World Cup in Qatar has to lead to a new policy for us as well”): “You have to define what works and what doesn’t work. Where are the red lines that cannot be crossed?” Sons counts arms shipments among these.
However, there are other fields of cooperation: “Not only in the energy sector, but also, for example, culture, popular sports or development cooperation. It is also possible to work together in migration management,” says Sons, referring to the refugees who have been displaced in Germany as a result of war and violence in the region were expelled from their homes. “In this regard, Qatar is also an important partner.”
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states in this country should not be demonized, says Sons. A differentiated debate is needed. “Then it will also be possible to reconcile real political interests and human rights as well as a value-oriented attitude.”