OpEd: Germany’s Shallow Remorse of Selling Big Guns

Report of major Leopard 2A7+ deal with Saudi Arabia splits German politicians

10:00 GMT, July 5, 2011 defpro.com | If you are a reader from any country outside of Germany, honestly, what was the last news you heard or read about regarding German defence policy? Whatever it was, I will willingly bet that it included at least one aspect that caused you to incredulously shake your head. Be it the German government’s decision to abstain from US Security Council Resolution 1973 on Libya (together with Russia and China), the never-ending reports about inadequate equipment for soldiers deployed to Afghanistan, the head-over-heels decision to end compulsory military service … the list is long and continues to grow day-by-day.

The latest national commotion, especially among politicians, was stirred by media reports about a possible export of 200 Krauss-Maffei Wegmann-built Leopard 2A7+ main battle tanks to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, after Germany has, reportedly, blocked the sale of weapon systems to the authoritarian desert kingdom for decades. According to the weekly news magazine “Der Spiegel”, the federal security council approved the sale last week. The report continued to explain that Saudi Arabia was negotiating to buy a version of the tank that was developed by the Spanish subsidiary of General Dynamics, yet, that the major portion of the order will land with Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and its partner Rheinmetall Defence. “Der Spiegel” also claims that 44 Leopard 2 tanks have already been sold to Saudi Arabia within the framework of the current agreement.

This report caused a familiar knee-jerk reaction by politicians from almost all political camps, but first and foremost by the socialist, green and left-wing opposition parties. Most critics of the possible multi-billion euro deal pointed to the volatile situation in North Africa and the Middle East and emphasised that Saudi Arabia recently deployed troops and heavy equipment to support its neighbour Bahrain in crushing demonstrations against the small Kingdom’s leadership. According to tagesschau.de, Jürgen Trittin of the Green party said that, as yet, German governments agreed not to sell weapons to countries in crises areas. He explained: “Saudi Arabia was recently involved in crushing the democratic movement in Bahrain. To deliver weapons to such a regime, and in such a manner, is unprecedented in recent years.”

Further, politicians who oppose the possible contract mentioned Saudi Arabia’s questionable human rights record, as well as the possible threat that such a large fleet of tanks could represent to Israel and the general balance of power in the region.

Interestingly, the ranks of those opposing or questioning the sale of tanks to Saudi Arabia have most recently been joined by members of the ruling parties, including Norbert Lammert, the President of the Bundestag and member of the conservative CDU, as well as Liberal-party member Elke Hoff of the Bundestag’s defence committee.

But what are the true motives of German politicians when suddenly crying out loud about such a contract? I will not question that some may have true pangs of conscience. But it is not the first time that German-built weapon systems are being sold to Saudi Arabia. In fact, the country is among the most important customers of German defence goods. According to tagesschau.de, the government approved defence contracts worth €168 million with the Saudi Kingdom in 2009; the same year also saw the export of 147 Leopard MBTs to Chile, Finland, Greece, Singapore, Turkey and Brazil. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has been the first Eurofighter Typhoon export customer, having ordered 72 aircraft for an estimated €.6.5 billion (the first batch was also delivered in 2009).

But the protests among politicians were far more restrained when these contracts were publicly discussed. And Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is not only being questioned since the start of the spring uprisings in the Arab world.

There are a number of different factors that blend into the outraged statements that could be heard during past days.

First, there is a historical reluctance when it comes to selling ‘big guns’. The large 120mm smoothbore gun and massive impression made by its 60+ tons has often brought the Leopard main battle tanks to the centre of attention of politicians opposing German weapon exports in general, or to a particular country. Its heavy armour recalls difficult memories of those days when Germany was notorious for solid Krupp steel products. But this comprehensible remorse by many Germans can also be exploited to win over certain groups of voters; in particular, at times when the ‘popular parties’ are having difficulties in sustaining their popularity.

Secondly, the so-called “Arab spring movement” makes it a currently most opportune moment for politicians to jump onto the train of shining pro-democratic self-manifestations. But no German politician’s indignation could be heard as loud as today when, for instance, Eurofighter Typhoons were sold to Saudi Arabia or when the United States negotiated and signed multi-billion dollar arms deals last month. In mid-June, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced possible foreign military sales (FMS) of a number of weapon systems, including 404 CBU-105D/B sensor-fuzed weapons or a variety of light armoured vehicles, for an estimated $263 million. In addition to a large number of different weapon systems, more than 370 US-built M1 Abrams main battle tanks have also been ploughing Saudi desert sands for years and provided the US defence industry with manufacturing, service and upgrade contracts worth several billion dollars.

If German politicians did not vividly criticise US defence exports to Saudi Arabia, it is also due to the fact that Germany has had its share of the cake in helping Saudi Arabia to build one of the region’s largest and most state-of-the-art armed forces – often legitimised by Western allies as a significant strategic counter-balance to Iran.

Thus, when a member of the opposition party directly accuses Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Secretary Guido Westerwelle of having only paid a lip service to the democratic movement in the Arab world during the last few months, when so light-heartedly selling tanks to Saudi Arabia, it’s not all that strange when a bad feeling crops up in the gut.

The result of this hypocrisy for the German defence industry, providing work to some 80,000 people, is a very uncomfortable and damaging business environment (one that many foreign country’s industry representatives are observing with amused curiosity), as the same politicians who are eagerly shaking hands and excitedly watching during weapon system displays are far too willing to demonise this same industry, when the tide turns.

Oh, and by the way: According to the German business newspaper “Handelsblatt”, the German federal security council recently gave the green light for the export of German defence equipment worth an estimated €10 billion over the next 10 years to the autocratic military government of Algeria, including Fuchs armoured transport vehicles, trucks and off-road vehicles, as well as frigates. Has anybody heard a word about this from German politicians?
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