BERLIN — By the time the German coalition government was formed this spring, the country had become one of Saudi Arabia’s most outspoken critics. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel had just taken on the Saudis, prompting the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador and of Saudi investments in the country. The Germans also agreed they wouldn’t sell any more arms to Riyadh.
Yet six months later, the Saudi ambassador is back in Berlin, and Germany is once again pushing to sell defense equipment to the kingdom, which has come under criticism for its involvement in the devastating war in Yemen. Germany’s top diplomat now calls the previous diplomatic spat a “misunderstanding.”
The silent reversal of Germany’s confrontational approach toward Riyadh couldn’t have come at a more awkward time. Since the Oct. 2 disappearance of Saudi Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, companies and governments worldwide have come under pressure to abandon their ties to the Saudi Arabian leadership. Saudi Arabia has denied allegations that it is behind the columnist’s disappearance, but Turkish authorities say they have audio and video recordings that prove Khashoggi died inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
In the United States, President Trump has found himself under growing pressure to act after a bipartisan group of senators triggered global Magnitsky sanctions procedures last week. The Magnitsky legislation forces Trump to determine whether any country or individual responsible for the writer’s disappearance should be held accountable.
Trump himself said there would be “severe punishment” if an investigation found Saudi Arabia to be responsible.
There has been far less pressure on other countries with deep Saudi ties to act, however. While Britain, France and Germany issued a joint statement over the weekend in which they called for a “credible investigation,” none of the three countries have gone beyond the remarks so far voiced by the White House. If anything, they’ve been even less vocal.
While U.S. pressure on Trump has been bipartisan, in Europe, calls to punish Saudi Arabia have mostly come from opposition parties. Britain’s Labour Party pressed the Conservative government over the weekend to stop arms sales to the country “until they changed their ways,” said Labour foreign policy expert Emily Thornberry. While German observers have lashed out at Trump for refusing to punish the Saudis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said the Khashoggi case and German exports to Riyadh were “two unrelated things.”
The European joint statement during the weekend made no reference to possible sanctions, and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt later only said that the country would consider an “appropriate way to react” if the Saudis were found to be behind the writer’s disappearance.
In a country that’s already facing economic uncertainty over Brexit, the dismantling of Saudi ties could have severe repercussions. In the first six months of 2017 alone, Britain sold Riyadh military equipment worth about $1.4 billion, with thousands of British jobs dependent on the sales.
“Britain’s economic ties to the Saudis are quite important, given its exports surplus with the region,” said David Wearing, author of a recently published book on Britain’s financial ties to the Gulf countries. “But militarily, the Saudis are completely dependent on the British and the Americans. We sell them whole weapons systems, which can’t be simply replaced by China or Russia.”
Saudi Arabia has said it won’t bend to “threats” and would respond with “greater action” to any sanctions imposed amid mounting U.S. and international pressure.
The Saudi response during the weekend largely matched prior reactions to bilateral disputes. When Canada voiced alarm at the arrest of a Saudi women’s rights activist, Riyadh immediately expelled the Canadian ambassador in August and suspended investments and flights. The move was widely seen as an indication of the kingdom’s new foreign policy assertiveness, which has consisted of aggressive policies that have triggered little outrage among its Western allies.
As of last year, more than a dozen other European Union member states were selling military equipment to the Saudis, with France being the second biggest exporter after Britain, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Sweden offered a rare rebuke in 2015 when it risked a diplomatic spat by voicing concern over the arrest and trial of Saudi writer Raif Badawi. But Sweden and Canada aren’t Britain, which exports as much to Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf region as to India and China combined.
Still, Wearing, the foreign policy researcher, believes sentiments in Britain — and perhaps elsewhere — could be changing. Some of that pressure is coming from the Labour Party, which pushed for arms deals with Saudi Arabia in the past but is now opposed.
“But as long as the Americans export weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Brits can always say: It wouldn’t even matter if we stopped,” Wearing said.
“Had Obama done something about it, the Brits would likely have been shamed into following suit.”
That raises the stakes for the decision Trump will eventually have to make.