Germany, Saudi Arabia open 'new phase of close cooperation' after row
UNITED NATIONS/ BERLIN - Germany and Saudi Arabia agreed to end a prolonged diplomatic row that prompted Riyadh to recall its ambassador from Berlin and sanction German firms operating in the country.
The spat was triggered last November when Germany’s foreign minister at the time, Sigmar Gabriel, condemned “adventurism” in the Middle East, in comments that were widely seen as an attack on increasingly assertive Saudi policies, notably in Yemen.
The comments, which aggravated tense relations caused by a moratorium on German arms exports to Saudi Arabia, led Riyadh to withdraw its ambassador and freeze out German companies, particularly in the lucrative health-care sector.
Gabriel’s successor Heiko Maas, egged on by German industry, worked to resolve the dispute and, in September, Berlin signed off on the delivery of four artillery positioning systems to Saudi Arabia, a step that officials say accelerated the rapprochement.
Maas, standing alongside Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir at the United Nations on September 25, spoke of “misunderstandings” that had undermined what were otherwise “strong and strategic ties” between the countries, saying “we sincerely regret this.”
“We should have been clearer in our communication and engagement in order to avoid such misunderstandings between Germany and the kingdom,” he said. “We’ll do our best to make this partnership with the kingdom even stronger than before.”
Jubeir said he welcomed Maas’s statement and invited him to Saudi Arabia to increase their ties. He spoke of “a new phase of close cooperation in all areas” between Berlin and Riyadh.
Officials said Saudi Ambassador to Germany Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan, son of long-time Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was expected to return to Berlin soon.
After weeks of delay, the new German ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Joerg Ranau, was soon expected to receive his accreditation and take up his position in Riyadh.
“The Gordian knot has been broken,” said Volker Treier, foreign trade chief at the German chambers of commerce and industry, who was in Riyadh to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the local chamber.
“The optimism is back. Diplomacy triumphed,” he said. “Everyone we have met here has made clear they want to work closely with us again.”
The dispute hit trade between the two countries. German exports to Saudi Arabia fell 5% in the first half of 2018. And companies such as Siemens Healthineers, Bayer and Boehringer Ingelheim complained that they were being excluded from public health-care tenders.
In a strongly worded June letter to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, European and US pharmaceutical associations warned that the restrictions could hurt Saudi patients and dampen future investment in the kingdom.
The dispute with Germany predates one that erupted between Canada and Saudi Arabia this summer after the Canadian foreign minister, in a tweet, called for the release of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador, recalling its own envoy, freezing new trade and investment, suspending flights and ordering Saudi students to leave Canada.
Saudi Arabia’s role in the Yemen war, in which Arab forces are fighting Iran-aligned Houthis, remains controversial in Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government wrote into its coalition agreement this year that no arms could be sent to countries involved in the conflict. It is unclear how recent arms deliveries fit with this ban.