German foreign policy is forced to look for new partners. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, global warming, inflation, economic stagnation in the world’s fourth largest economy, and as a result a reorganization of geopolitical realities are forcing Germany to reposition itself internationally.
As the first woman in this position, the German Foreign Minister has made it her task to think in a more feminist way about foreign policy and to choose a value-oriented approach in her political responsibility. During her visit to China, political observers could already see how she wanted to achieve this balancing act between interest-based and value-based foreign policy. In doing so, she distanced herself from her boss, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had just paid his respects to the Chinese regime.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Saudi Arabia at the end of last year. In the course of the Ukraine war, his golf trip was not least characterized by the development of new energy partnerships. But more is expected of Germany in the region. “However, the energy and economic issues cannot be separated from the general security policy challenges that Saudi Arabia and the GCC states are still confronted with,” commented an expert at the time during Scholz’s visit. “What Germany is missing in this context is a more active political role that is appropriate to its economic strength and its position as a leading European country.”
Should she make a similar appearance during her visit to the Gulf region as she did recently in China? The beginning of the trip already showed that Germany cannot always score with the quality seal “Made in Germany”: A technical defect had delayed the start of Baerbock, who had to change to a replacement aircraft together with the delegation. Something similar has happened to members of the German federal government in the past. In the break before departure, the minister had already found words that should at least ensure a safe arrival in the Gulf: The governments in Saudi Arabia and Qatar “have enormous weight in the current crises in the region,” she explained. “In a region in which tensions threaten to explode at any time and many are convinced that conflicts can be solved by military means, we Europeans want reliable channels to our partners in the Gulf,” said Baerbock. It is also about strengthening the partners in their commitment to stability and security in the region. In the current crises in the region, the voices of Saudi Arabia and Qatar carry enormous weight. There was talk of “partners in the Gulf”.
Recently, the Gulf monarchies have not considered themselves to be partners with Europe, with whom one could also talk about human rights issues. There is distrust among the rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have just developed a self-confidence that suggests Europe might need them more than they need Europe.
When relations between Berlin and Riyadh were realigned, issues were raised in which Berlin was able to show appreciation for the kingdom: Saudi Arabia actively helped to rescue foreigners from Sudan, which was shaken by heavy fighting, and also acted as a mediator in the conflict. At the same time, Riyadh’s recent efforts to come to an agreement with the Houthi rebels on an end to the violence in Yemen are also being praised in Berlin. The same applies to the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, the contradiction of which has had a destructive impact on the region for a long time.
Baerbock first met with her Saudi colleague Faisal bin Farhan in the port city of Jeddah, followed by talks with Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak. The minister also exchanged views on the situation in the civil war country with the UN coordinator for Yemen, David Gressly.
The rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran means that the chances of an easing of the war in Yemen, where both countries support different sides, are better than they have been for years. Riyadh is looking for a way out of the costly conflict in which, according to UN estimates, at least 377,000 people lost their lives as a result of the direct and indirect consequences of the war. About 23 million people are dependent on some form of humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia is fighting in Yemen against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who overran the country in 2014 and control large parts of the north.
For weeks, the conflicting parties in Sudan have been negotiating a temporary end to the violence in Jeddah. In an initial agreement, the warring military blocs agreed on measures to protect civilians. A power struggle escalated violently in the north-east African country a month ago. The army commanded by de facto President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan is fighting against the paramilitary forces of his Vice President Mohammed Hamdan Daglo. The two generals seized power together in 2021. According to the UN, at least 604 people have died in the conflict so far and at least 5,100 have been injured. However, the actual number is likely to be significantly higher.
But there are also sensitive issues. On the one hand, heir to the throne Muhammad bin Salman is opening up Saudi society with a crowbar. It has given Saudi women in particular a lot of freedom of movement. But the way in which he does this does not fit the concept of “feminist foreign policy” that Baerbock has championed. Because political liberties do not exist. The state cracks down on anyone who challenges the crown prince’s authority. It is an irony that is as characteristic of Saudi Arabia as it is significant that activists who fought against the very ban on driving that the heir to the throne abolished himself have disappeared into the clutches of the brutal apparatus of repression. There is now a vibrant art and music scene in Jeddah – but for which any political statement is taboo.
The recent rapprochement between the Arab states and the Assad regime was of course also a topic of the talks. “Every step towards Assad should be made dependent on concrete concessions,” said Baerbock after her talks with the Saudi Arabian counterpart. Assad should not be “rewarded for the most serious human rights violations on a daily basis.” The Arab countries had recently agreed on Syria’s re-admission to the organization, which has around 20 members. They are thus promoting ongoing normalization with Assad in the region, who was isolated for years after the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011. “In Syria, the political process to resolve the conflict is still a long way off. For more than ten years there has only been bloodshed, incredible human suffering that is hardly reported anymore,” said the minister. In the West, talks with Assad, whose government has imposed extensive sanctions on the EU and the US, are considered taboo. These punitive measures were in response to the Assad government’s violent repression of the civilian population. A civil war with international participation later developed from the mass protests against Assad.
Saudi King Salman invited the Syrian tyrant to the Arab League summit, also held in Jeddah. According to Arab diplomats, Riyadh has recently exerted considerable pressure on the remaining Arab powers, which did not want to include Syria in the state organization again. Recently, it was even reported that the kingdom wanted to pay the sanctioned Assad regime about four billion dollars so that it would stop flooding the Gulf states with the stimulant Captagon.
More German commitment is a demand that can also be heard elsewhere in the Gulf. There is disappointment in Qatar for other reasons. It’s about German hostility towards the World Cup, and above all it’s about the appearances of German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser. In the course of the World Cup – not only in the opinion of the Qatari leadership – they wanted to score points with the German audience with gimmicky criticism. In Doha, no one has forgotten that the interior minister was more obliging and friendlier behind closed doors than in front of the German press. That also outweighed the Qatari resentment about the negative mood with which Germany had distinguished itself in the World Cup winter. This, too, has been noted across the region, where there is great reluctance to hear Western criticism of the human rights record.
The diplomatic damage left behind by the German Minister of the Interior has been largely repaired, not least because of the commitment from the Chancellery, according to government representatives in the Canary capital Doha. Bilateral relations are good. However, there remains some uneasiness about public appearances by German guests.
It is difficult to say how Baerbock will manage the balancing act in the long term. Journalists were not allowed to attend most of the meetings. A joint press conference was only held in Qatar, but not in Saudi Arabia. But the minister’s body language reveals something about how she understands her role here in the Gulf. Baerbock greets the Emir at the Palace of Doha with a friendly smile and an outstretched hand. That looks self-confident. Her party colleague Robert Habeck bowed to the trade minister during his visit to Qatar. Critics saw it as a gesture of submission. Baerbock didn’t seem to think of such a thing.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.