In 2011 Der Spiegel revealed the planned reinvestment of Saudi Arabian petro-dollars in 200-270 Leopard 2A7+ main battle tanks. The announcement was followed by critical uproar from the public and from experts. Germany, who is an influential economic powerhouse but is often described as a "civilian power" reluctant to exhibit use-of-force and zigzagging without strategic goals, might have surpassed expectations with this plan. Nonetheless, Germany should sell tanks for the following reasons:
Saudi Arabia does not need the Leopards to suppress domestic unrest. The Kingdom has more than 1,000 tanks and over 4,000 APC's and IFV to repress uprisings. Additionally, it can deploy interior combat ready troops. Even though the tank has a very symbolic character and is a more expensive export good, its value in this case is helplessly overrated. It is, however, justifiable to critique the export of other goods that are more viable to crush rebellions. Since the early 2000s, Germany has delivered many small firearms, grenades and surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia. Hence, dealing arms with Riyadh does not seem to be an invention of Chancellor Merkel's.
The Arab Spring is over; relations with non picture-perfect countries remain an international reality. Change in Saudi Arabia has to come from within; outside pressure from the German government may appease domestic groups but is not the right way (see China). It cannot be in Germany's interest to be once again the unreliable partner or to appear to hope for regime change. Considering geopolitical and economic realities, Germany has to place her and her Allies' strategic and geo-economic agenda first. Indeed, vital partnerships like the one between the US and the Egyptian military could pay off in times of turmoil. Thus, Germany could retain its influence through the maintenance of the tanks and possible training of young officers.
Israel is not endangered by Leopards. Given Israel's regionally unrivaled hi-tech capabilities and the unlikely case that Iran will begin direct conflict with Riyadh, the Leopards are even less of a threat. Daniel Ayalon, Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister, stated in an interview in Berlin: "It is in the nature of such matters that one does not speak about them publicly. But I can assure you that we fully and completely trust Germany's government."
This is not a case of singularity, even though some commentators or public outcry would suggest otherwise. Apart from the previously mentioned deliveries of small weapons and hi-tech systems to the Kingdom, Germany also signed armament deals on APC's and tanks with Turkey, Algeria and Indonesia. Over the last 10 years Germany has sold €39 million worth of weapons to the Saudis. The EU is the biggest arms exporter to Saudi Arabia. In exports deals, e.g. the Eurofighter Typhoon, German companies were also important shareholders. Thus, reactions appear to be uninformed hysteria, which politics should finally tackle to establish a normalization process.
The Federal Security Council is the right organ to decide such politically delicate contracts. A more self-confident approach with less secrecy could normalize reactions. As many German defense companies and politicians shy away from the topic; they leave too much space for uniformed hysteria and critics. German arms exports doubled between 2000 and 2009, but a closer look at the exports reveals that often the material exported consists of diesel engines, rather than purely ready-to-deploy platforms, and mainly went to EU and NATO partners. Delicate deals continue to be the exception and the federal government does not hand out cartes blanches.
This is the first strategic Foreign and Security Policy (re)orientation. The policy marks an option to solve the contradiction between a public that thinks security is for free, politicians who shy away from such unpopular topics and are not ready to deploy forces, and an industry that is silently happy to export arms, often with government support to secure jobs in an "age of (defense) austerity". German economic Realpolitik, as in the form of arms exports, is not a novel contradiction to "civilian power" and thus should operate openly besides higher ideals.
Merkel's speech at the Körber Foundation set out to combine the traits of an economic power and simplify the exportation of hard power goods to strategic partners that may use them to defend German interests. In a second step, the goal is to develop a more coordinated European armament export policy to wield greater influence.
Consequently, Germany would truly implement "smart power": a combination of hard and soft assets to exercise power and influence with and through others to achieve desired ends. This step is neither a lapse in nor the result of lobbying to protect the defense industry. Hopefully, it is a clear strategic statement by the German government on how to conduct foreign policy by smart means and in a comprehensive approach.
Matteo Scianna is pursuing his Masters in International and World History at Columbia University and the London School of Economics and Social Sciences. He focuses on military thought, irregular warfare and the current European Defense reforms and industries.