Berlin-Riyadh row over mosque financing
London - Saudi Arabia appeared headed towards a diplomatic row after a senior German official rebuked Riyadh for supporting religious radicals, linking the rise of “dangerous Islamists” in Germany to Saudi-funded mosques.
“We need Saudi Arabia to solve the regional conflicts but we must at the same time make clear that the time to look away is past. Wahhabi mosques are financed all over the world by Saudi Arabia. In Germany, many dangerous Islamists come from these communities,” German Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel told Bild am Sonntag newspaper.
Gabriel is head of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and a major partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government. His comments came following a German foreign intelligence report suggesting that Saudi foreign policy was becoming increasingly interventionist and media reports, which turned out to be false, that Saudi Arabia had offered to build 200 mosques in Germany for Syrian refugees.
The head of the SPD parliamentary group, Thomas Oppermann, repeated Gabriel’s criticisms. “This radical fundamentalism taking place in Salafist mosques is no less dangerous than right-wing extremism. We will prevent Saudi help in the building or financing of mosques in Germany where Wahhabi ideas are to be disseminated,” he told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper
Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Berlin issued a statement rejecting Gabriel’s claims and highlighted Riyadh’s commitment to countering radicalisation. “Like Germany, we are part of the anti-ISIS coalition and fighting side by side against terror,” the statement said.
The statement explicitly referred to the claim, which was published in numerous international media outlets, that Riyadh was looking to build 200 mosques in the country.
“The kingdom has no intention whatsoever to build 200 mosques in Germany,” the statement added.
This is the second time that Saudi Arabia has rejected allegations that it could seek to build 200 mosques in Germany, a claim media observers traced to Hezbollah-affiliated media in Lebanon.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and the birthplace of Islam is committed to supporting Muslim communities around the world. Building mosques in other countries is arranged in close coordination with the governments of those countries in order to facilitate the ability of Muslim citizens and residents to practice their faith,” said Ambassador Osama Ahmed Nugali, head of the Media Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement, according to a news release.
The German government moved quickly to defuse tensions between Berlin and Riyadh following the issuance of a BND intelligence agency report that criticised the kingdom’s increasingly interventionist bent.
“The cautious diplomatic stance of the older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention,” in what was likely an implicit reference to Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who has been granted increased power in the kingdom following the ascension of his father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, to the throne.
“The assessment, in this case made public, does not reflect the stance of the government,” a spokesman for Merkel said. Berlin stressed that Riyadh remains an important German ally in the Middle East.
“The BND surely does not speak for German foreign policy, especially not via third parties,” a German diplomat at the Foreign Ministry, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters.
This is not the first time that Riyadh has come under fire from European allies in 2015. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom ignited a diplomatic crisis with Riyadh in March after she denounced the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi as a “cruel attempt to silence modern forms of expression”.
Riyadh responded by denouncing Stockholm’s “flagrant interference” in its affairs, withdrawing its ambassador from Sweden and freezing business visas for Swedes wishing to visit the kingdom. Stockholm cancelled an arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
The diplomatic spat was resolved following an official message from Swedish King Carl XVI Gustaf and Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was dispatched to King Salman, with Swedish officials apologising for what they termed a misunderstanding. Riyadh has since reinstated its ambassador to Sweden.