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Germany’s New Government and the Middle East

A recalibration of Germany’s approach to the Middle East is necessary and overdue. How will the new coalition government go about this task?

Germany's new Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock. Courtesy of Michael Brandtner / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The end of ‘Merkelism’ and the formation of the new ‘traffic light coalition’ government in Berlin – consisting of the Social Democratic Party, the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party – signals the beginning of a new era for German foreign policy, including toward the Middle East.

Barely a month into their term in office, Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his Green Party Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock face a rapidly expanding list of priorities that does not necessarily include the Middle East. Current hot topics – ranging from the crises in Ukraine and Kazakhstan and the tensions between Belarus and Poland, to the risk of EU fragmentation and the continuing repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic – mean that that they have likely had little time to look at the region.

Nevertheless, a reassessment and recalibration of Germany’s approach to the Middle East is necessary and overdue. The experience of the last decade has made it abundantly clear that instability in the region has direct implications for Germany. Terrorism, migration and Russia’s growing military presence in Syria and Libya remain challenges that Berlin needs to deal with; commitment to Israel’s security, regional non-proliferation, and upholding freedom of navigation through the region’s waterways are mainstays of German foreign policy; and the new government’s climate action agenda makes little sense without the Middle East as a key area of focus. Meanwhile, regional and international players are keen to see more pro-active engagement from Berlin in the region. They hope that Germany can become a ‘more “normal” foreign policy actor at last’ that is prepared to assume an ‘anchor function’ in support of regional stability.

The New Policy is the Old Policy

The coalition contract – essentially the three governing parties’ joint statement of intent for their time in power – sets out plans for a highly normative foreign policy approach. The government wants to focus more on human rights, labelling them the ‘most important protecting shield of individual dignity’, and seeks to promote multilateralism and diplomacy in order to counter-balance non-democratic and authoritarian regimes. This certainly sets the tone for any engagement with governments across the Middle East, as does a new national law to more strictly regulate arms exports. According to the coalition contract, the Merkel administration’s embargo on arms exports to states involved in the Yemen war – specifically, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – will remain in place.

Berlin should consider engaging more in ad hoc diplomatic mechanisms and regional cooperation forums to better prepare for acute crisis escalation in regions where its interests are at stake

In fact, at least initially, continuity will likely be the main feature of the new government’s Middle East policy: Berlin will continue to support Israel, while also providing support for the Palestinian Authority and insisting that it wants to see a two-state solution. Curbing migration will be the main driving force in dealing with the conflicts in Libya and Syria. Germany will reluctantly support the use of military force to fight terrorism, but emphasise diplomacy as the only game in town to contain Iran’s nuclear programme.

Yet, the ongoing ‘erosion of old orders’ in the Middle East makes such a business-as-usual approach increasingly unsustainable. The end of the Pax Americana – conditioned by US retrenchment, growing roles claimed by Russia and China, and the emergence of assertive regional powers such as Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – is transforming the region’s strategic environment. Like its allies in Washington, London and Paris, Berlin will have to find responses to these new realities. This will inevitably require a balancing act between its normative rhetoric and pragmatic necessities.

Three Key Areas for Germany’s Middle East Policy

A more strategic approach will take time to formulate – quite possibly more time than the term of this new government. Still, three areas stand out that Germany can and should focus on:

Promoting ad hoc alliances for conflict management and crisis prevention

The Southern Mediterranean, Syria, Yemen and sub-Saharan Africa will remain of the utmost strategic significance for Germany’s foreign policy. Still, a coherent strategy for how to address such theatres of crisis has not been developed yet due to a lack of capacities in crisis prevention and foresight analysis. Besides traditional formats for conflict mediation, Berlin should thus also consider engaging more in ad hoc diplomatic mechanisms and regional cooperation forums to better prepare for acute crisis escalation in regions where German interests are at stake. Despite its limits, closer ad hoc coordination with relevant regional players in terms of migration management, development cooperation, education and social resilience could form an additional flexible instrument in Germany’s Middle East policy.

Promoting climate and energy diplomacy with the Gulf states

To date, Germany’s relationships with the Gulf monarchies have remained limited, particularly when compared to those of the US, China, France and the UK, all of which have established close political and economic ties with Saudi Arabia and its neighbours. In recent years, Germany has increasingly recognised the Gulf monarchies as significant regional partners in terms of economic cooperation, but in the public and political debate, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are still mostly considered as ‘frenemies’ of Germany. Criticism of the Gulf states’ overall human rights records, and specific controversies – such as the war in Yemen and the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi – dominate, leaving little space for discourse about opportunities for productive engagement.

Now that they are in government, the Greens are likely to try to find smart ways to cooperate with the Gulf states, recognising that their wealth and self-interest may contain the key to effective climate action in the Middle East

Placing climate and energy diplomacy front and centre in German-Gulf relations could change this. ‘Greening’ Germany’s foreign policy features heavily in Foreign Minister Baerbock’s political agenda. Thus far, this has primarily led to criticism of the oil- and gas-producing Gulf states, which also rank among the world’s biggest per-capita emitters. Yet, now that they are in government, Baerbock’s Greens are likely to show more interest in trying to find smart ways to cooperate with the Gulf states, recognising that their wealth and self-interest may also contain the key to effective climate action in the Middle East. Consequently, green diplomacy could emerge as a significant pillar of Germany’s Middle East policy: Germany aims to establish so-called ‘climate partnerships’ with selected countries, which could provide a window of opportunity to enhance cooperation with Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE. By introducing the ‘Saudi Green Initiative’ and the ‘Middle East Green Initiative’, Saudi Arabia aims to establish itself as a regional champion of alternative energy. For instance, Germany and Saudi Arabia agreed to enhance bilateral cooperation in hydrogen in March 2021.

On an EU level, Germany could engage more in the EU-GCC Clean Energy Network that was established in 2010. In addition, the European Green Deal offers opportunities to foster green energy cooperation with the Gulf states on business, political and research levels. By focusing more proactively on sustainability, the ministries run by Greens – such as the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action, headed by Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck – could align their foreign policy approaches, which could result in long-term engagement with regional partners in green energy.

Promoting inter-regional and multilateral development assistance

Furthermore, all Gulf states have established themselves as reliable providers of humanitarian aid and development assistance. Similar to Germany, such engagement aims to promote regional stability and could result in comprehensive efforts towards project implementation in countries of mutual interest such as Jordan or Iraq. Multilateral organisations based in the Gulf states could serve as interesting cooperation partners in terms of education, youth empowerment, and triangular cooperation. For instance, the German Development Cooperation Agency already signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Development Bank in 2017.

A More Nuanced Policy Needs Better Coordination

Ultimately, Germany has to follow a more networked and nuanced Middle East policy which is driven by clear strategic interests and offers potential cooperation models by combining normative and pragmatic trajectories. During the Merkel years, German foreign policy was tightly controlled by the Chancellery, reducing the room for manoeuvre and creativity for the Foreign Ministry. Chancellor Scholz has already taken some steps to improve collaboration between his and Baerbock’s offices through key personnel changes. Jens Plötner, the former political director in the Foreign Ministry, has been appointed as Scholz’s foreign policy advisor, while his former deputy, Andreas Michaelis, now serves as Baerbock’s undersecretary of state (Staatssekretär). Such steps, together with continued investments in regional expertise and cross-ministerial coordination, are important in establishing the foundations for a more coordinated German approach to the Middle East.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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