It is unclear what, exactly, impresses the Arabs most about the new "Leopard 2" battle tank. Is it its reliable 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon, which remains stubbornly fixed on its target, even when the 68-ton behemoth is traveling at high speeds through the desert ? Is it the "increased power-rated additional power generators for check-point missions" touted by the Munich-based manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann ? Or the "communication interface on the exterior of the vehicle for dismounted forces ?"
Surely the arms experts in Saudi Arabia and Qatar appreciate the fact that the new Leopard is equipped with an improved air conditioning system. After all, who wants to see their soldiers being roasted in an armor-plated oven in the desert, where summer temperatures can be as high as 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) ?
In the first week of July, Krauss-Maffei shipped one of its new miracle weapons to the Saudi desert to test the Leopard 2 under extreme heat conditions. The Defense Ministry in Berlin sent along an officer with the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr, to ensure safety during test firing of the tank’s guns.
The successful desert test didn’t go unnoticed by the region’s sheikhs. The government of Qatar has already shown interest in buying up to 200 tanks, a deal that, should it come to fruition, could be worth up to €2 billion ($2.6 billion).
The Saudis, for their part, have already become loyal customers. Last summer, the German government responded positively to their request to buy up to 270 of the Leopard 2 tanks. But now Riyadh wants more. In a new request, the sheikhs have petitioned the German government for its approval of the purchase of a few hundred "Boxer" armed transport vehicles. Germany’s Federal Security Council, which meets in secret, addressed the request last week. The government hasn’t issued a decision yet on the deal, which would likewise be worth billions.
German high-tech weapons are a hot commodity among Arab potentates and other autocrats. They haven’t failed to notice that the coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) has steadily relaxed Germany’s otherwise restrictive arms export policy.
The official (and most recent) Military Equipment Export Report for 2011 shows that business is booming, with arms export permits issued by the German government topping €10 billion for the first time. Some 42 percent of the weapons are destined for so-called third-party states, outside NATO, NATO-equivalent and European Union countries, another number that could very well be record-setting. In 2010, it was just 29 percent.
The numbers suggest that the Merkel doctrine is beginning to have its effect. In accordance with the chancellor’s wishes, Germany is now sending soldiers to conflict zones in emergency situations only. Instead, "partner countries" in the affected regions are to be strengthened through arms exports to handle the job of maintaining peace and security on their own.
It’s a risky strategy, and it also signifies a substantial departure from the nationwide consensus on German foreign policy. "Even with the benefit of hindsight, Germany’s restraint regarding its arms export policy has proven to be the right approach, and we should remain true to it," says former longstanding Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (FDP), something of an éminence grise of German foreign policy.
Big ticket arms items often remain in service for decades. The Leopard 2, for example, was developed in the 1970s and old versions are still in service in many countries. For this reason, the risk is high that armaments could eventually fall into the wrong hands. The Arab spring showed how unstable many of the supposedly stable regimes in the region really are.
The chancellor points out that her foreign policy is "committed to the values" of democracy and human rights. And yet she permits weapons shipments — in the name of stability — to unsavory regimes whose human rights records are often appalling.
The body in which these contradictions are occasionally addressed is the Federal Security Council, which holds top-secret meetings at irregular intervals in the small conference room at the Chancellery. Merkel opened last Monday’s meeting promptly at 4 p.m.
’Hospitable to Terrorism’
First, two FDP cabinet ministers, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Development Minister Dirk Niebel, reported on the situation in the troubled West African country of Mali, which has been divided since the military staged a coup in the spring. Then it was Gerhard Schindler’s turn to speak.
Schindler, who is president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence service, handed out a folder full of slides and charts. The situation in Mali is difficult, Schindler said, noting that many troops loyal to the government have deserted and the army is demoralized leading to a current inability to pressure the Islamists who have established control of the northern part of the country. "Northern Mali is in the process of becoming a region hospitable to terrorism."
Merkel is a disciplined politician who is almost never quoted using strong language. But when Schindler had finished his presentation, the chancellor exclaimed : "What a crap region."
After the first item on the agenda has been dealt with, the BND president and the intelligence coordinator at the Chancellery always leave the room. When it comes to individual arms exports, the chancellor and the other eight permanent members of the cabinet (ministers of foreign affairs, finance, defense, economics, interior, development and justice, along with Merkel’s chief of staff) prefer to exclude other government officials from their discussions.
Only the relevant department head at the Chancellery, the government spokesperson and representatives from the Bundeswehr and the German president’s office are allowed to stay in the room. The minutes merely contain rudimentary information on which arms export deals were approved and which ones were blocked.
Two projects that were discussed last Monday afternoon were particularly sensitive. The topic was the Middle East, as is so often the case. Protecting Israel’s security is "part of my country’s raison d’être," Merkel said in a March 2008 speech to the Israeli Knesset. "For me as German chancellor," she continued, "Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation."
Partly as a result, Israel gets nuclear-capable submarines from the Germans, as well as any other weapons it wants. This time the Israelis wanted more modern launchers for rocket-propelled grenades and anti-armor weapons, made by Dynamit Nobel Defence near the western German town of Siegen.
’Now More than Ever’
In its advertising, the company notes that its RPGs can be fired at close range and out of confined spaces, making them perfect for use against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli request was on the Federal Security Council’s agenda once before, in June. But the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development had concerns about exporting weapons for urban warfare to a potential combat zone, and the council decided to defer the decision.
Last Monday, with impressions from the most recent Gaza war in their minds, Merkel and her ministers decided to approve the weapons deal with Jerusalem. Germany had to support Israel, "now more than ever," one minister argued, saying that the threat coming from Hamas is serious. The group agreed that the arms shipment should also send a message.
In this context, Westerwelle is the personification of German paradox. Only a week earlier, he had tried in vain to serve as a peace broker between Israel and the Palestinians. And now the same minister was rubber-stamping the delivery of weapons that could be used in the Palestinian conflict.
The second request was even more sensitive. The Saudis are now interested in Boxer armored transport vehicles. Last summer, the news that Germany was willing to deliver up to 270 Leopard 2 tanks to Saudi Arabia triggered fierce political debates in Germany. But the sheikhs are unrelenting. Now they want to buy Boxers, which Krauss-Maffei Wegmann also co-manufactures.
The Boxer is one of the most modern battle vehicles in the world. It can be equipped with a remote-controlled weapons station or converted into a mobile surgical unit. The Bundeswehr uses the Boxer in Afghanistan as an armored personnel carrier. The Saudis need the vehicles for their Royal Guard, which protects the royal family.