While the move affects future deals, exports that have already been approved to the second-biggest foreign market for German arms equipment will proceed for now but may be suspended in the coming days.
Germany is the first major U.S. ally to cast doubts on future arms sales after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, and the move is likely to put pressure on bigger exporters to do the same. President Trump has ruled out suspending arms exports but faces bipartisan calls to hold the alleged perpetrators behind the writer’s killing accountable.
Since the Oct. 2 disappearance of Khashoggi, companies and governments worldwide have come under pressure to abandon their ties to the Saudi Arabian leadership. Saudi Arabia first denied allegations that it was behind the columnist’s disappearance but later claimed that Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in a “fistfight” with more than a dozen Saudi officials. While Trump has sent mixed messages — both calling the Saudi investigation “credible” and accusing the Saudis of “deception” — key U.S. allies in Europe agree that Riyadh’s explanation does not add up.
On Monday, one of Merkel’s closest allies — Economy Minister Peter Altmaier — pressed other European Union member states to also halt arms sales until they “know what happened.” The German government has said it was seeking to coordinate an international response to the Khashoggi case. But Merkel did not tie her decision to temporarily halt sales to measures taken by other major exporters, including the United States or the more than a dozen other E.U. member states that sell military equipment to the Saudis.
Within the European Union, Britain and France deliver the most equipment to Riyadh, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Britain alone sold Saudi Arabia military equipment worth about $1.4 billion in the first six months of last year.
In London, Theresa May’s conservative government has so far been cautious about any sanctions that could endanger thousands of British jobs amid an already strained pre-Brexit economy. Domestic pressure to put human rights first was already growing before Merkel’s announcement on Sunday, with the opposition Labour party calling for a suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Germany today accounts for only a relatively small share of European sales to Saudi Arabia, after years of curbing exports to the kingdom amid human rights concerns. Since 2012, the country has substantially reduced exports and toughened its rhetoric against the Saudi leadership, which resulted in the withdrawal of the Saudi ambassador from Berlin and fewer foreign investments from the kingdom.
In the weeks before Khashoggi’s disappearance, however, the German government had backed away from its earlier promise to no longer sell military equipment to the Saudis. In September, it confirmed the export approval of four artillery positioning systems to Riyadh. Overall, Berlin has agreed to export equipment worth more than $460 million to the Saudis this year.
Germany’s announcement on arms exports to Riyadh is yet another policy reversal. Merkel’s critics argue that her shifting stance toward the Saudis leaves her in no good position to lecture other Western leaders on human rights.
While Germany’s complicated dealings with the Saudis raise doubts over the longer-term sustainability of Merkel’s exports ban, her decision still puts other leaders in an uncomfortable position at a sensitive time.
In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators triggered global Magnitsky Act sanctions procedures two weeks ago, forcing Trump to determine possible punishments against Saudi Arabia or Saudi officials over Khashoggi’s killing. If the United States imposed sanctions on Saudi Arabia, other major arms exporters such as Britain would probably also be forced to take similar measures. But in Berlin, top officials hope that their move to suspend future sales could pressure other European allies into following suit, even if the United States refrained from doing so.