German Chancellor on mission in the Gulf States

Image: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

Olaf Scholz cannot complain about the reception. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets the German Chancellor at the gate of Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah with a handshake that is not exuberantly warm, but friendly. For him, it is the first meeting with the Saudi ruler, apart from a brief encounter during the G20 summit in Rome in 2021, to which he accompanied the Chancellor Angela Merkel. As chancellor, Scholz has so far only spoken politely to the crown prince. Now, at the start of his trip to the Gulf, it’s about establishing a relationship with the man who is likely to steer the fortunes of the resource-rich kingdom for many decades to come. The consequences of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine have made Mohammed bin Salman, acronym MBS, a man much in demand in the West.

The German Chancellor was received with a strong handshake in the Royal Palace of Peace. Both took a seat under a portrait of King Salman for the conversation. With French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has since resigned, and US President Joe Biden, Germany’s most important allies were guests in Saudi Arabia before Scholz. The crown prince traveled to the EU for official meetings for the first time in July.

Scholz is building on this easing and wants to resume the thread of the conversation, also with a view to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine and its consequences for the German energy industry and consumer prices. It is also necessary to stay in dialogue with difficult partners in order not to lose them to alliances with countries like Russia or China.

Many hopes are pinned on MBS when it comes to curbing spiraling commodity prices and compensating for the loss of Russian supplies. Germany is even more dependent on this than many others, although the German government prefers to speak of “common interests”. Of course, “this is not an ordinary trip,” it is conceded, he will meet difficult partners. In the Jeddah palace, the difficult partner proves to be at least extremely talkative: even the delegation talks lasted significantly longer than planned. In addition, both spoke privately for 25 minutes.

Since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi four years ago, diplomatic relations between Germany and Saudi Arabia have largely been frozen. Another reason was the aggressive actions of the Saudis in the ongoing war in Yemen. But now the federal government is trying to normalize, it is also about winning over the powerful Gulf state as a potential energy supplier.

The German government makes no compromises “on the clear condemnation and classification of the murder of Khashoggi,” was assured in advance in Berlin. And of course “the issue of human and civil rights is one that we take with us on our journey”. It is difficult to say what impression this makes on the interlocutors. None of the rulers who will receive Scholz during his golf trip have agreed to hold a joint press conference. In the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, too, only Scholz will be able to report from the talks and possible successes.

“We have discussed all issues related to civil and human rights,” said Scholz after the conversation with the crown prince, asking whether he had raised the Khashoggi case. That’s how it should be. And you can be sure that nothing that needs to be said has remained undiscussed,” Scholz continued. However, he did not give any further details.

Before that, however, he mentions the cooperation for a “CO2-neutral future”. The aim is to use hydrogen from Saudi Arabia “on a large scale” in the future. Germany is hoping for long-term green hydrogen for the energy transition from the region, but urgently needs deliveries for the liquid gas (LNG) terminals currently under construction. That was also the goal of a trip to the region by Green Economics Minister Robert Habeck in March, which, however, yielded far fewer concrete results than initially appeared. Now Habeck raised expectations again, this time for the Scholz trip. In the United Arab Emirates, “certainly some contracts” for LNG could be concluded, Habeck announced.

The Chancellor is accompanied by a business delegation, which includes the Hamburg port boss, the SAP CEO and Airbus boss Faury, who is hoping for a major aircraft deal. The question of arms exports also resonates on the trip. Saudi Arabia is affected by the decision made by the old federal government not to export arms to countries involved in the Yemen war. Restrictions that Germany’s European partners, especially France, are not very enthusiastic about, because they impede exports in joint projects – or maintenance, as in the case of Saudi Eurofighters..

Scholz emphasized in the press conference that the economic issues were primarily about cooperation in the production and transport of hydrogen. Scholz did not answer the question of whether the crown prince had asked him to relax the arms export rules. “Everyone knows we have a very strict policy here. And in line with these rules, decisions have been made in recent years that have been well considered. And we will continue to make well-considered decisions,” he said.

For Qatar, on the other hand, another Gulf state that Scholz wants to visit on the Arabian Peninsula in the coming days, the German government gave 46 individual permits for military exports. The value of these armaments amounted to 20.7 million euros, as stated in the response from the department of Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) on September 20th. Ten permits worth a good 219,000 euros were listed for the United Arab Emirates.

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