When the then economy minister Philipp Rösler flew to Riyadh in June 2012, many working in the German export economy thought it was high time. The Saudis felt neglected by Germany's political elites, and this threatened to affect business.
Former German president Christian Wulff ignored Saudi Arabia on two trips to the Middle East, and in 2011, the German government sent former foreign minister Klaus Kinkel as its representative at the funeral of the Saudi crown prince. It was a diplomatic affront, especially as Great Britain had sent Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, to the funeral.
On board the government flight to Riyadh, Mr. Rösler made use of the usual magic formula intended to justify good business with bad regimes: "Change through trade."
Three and a half years after this new beginning in relations between Berlin and Riyadh, trade is going extremely well, but change is another story. Sigmar Gabriel, Mr. Rösler's successor in the economy ministry and German vice chancellor, has also traveled to Riyadh, validating the Saudi regime in the process. Nevertheless, the regime continues to impose brutal punishments on its critics, such as 1,000 lashes in the case of blogger Raif Badawi.
Saudi Arabia is simply too important to cut off relations.
Now, with the execution of Shia opposition leader Nimr al-Nimr, Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia is destabilizing the entire region and, in particular, jeopardizing the peace process in Syria. It can only function if Shias and Sunnis, the two quarrelling branches of Islam, talk to one another. And in Yemen, where Saudi troops are fighting Iran-backed Shias, the prospect of peace is now even more remote.
Is it possible to blithely engage in trade with a country such as Saudi Arabia, even to repeatedly validate the country with political visits, as the Germans and many other Western countries are doing?
The usual answer is yes, because who else can we talk to? Human rights are violated in China, people are executed in the United States, rainforests are destroyed in Brazil and Palestinians are oppressed in Israel, not to mention the poor treatment of women and homosexuals in many parts of the world.
Those who choose export markets based solely on political correctness will quickly end up with Denmark as their only trading partner. In fact, the cozy kingdom to the north of Germany could even be added to the sanctions list, given that the Danes are not exhibiting the necessary solidarity in accepting Syrian refugees.
The exaggerated example of Denmark shows that there are no easy solutions when it comes to determining the extent to which trade relations should also be maintained with problematic regimes. Imposing sanctions against all those who refuse to fall in line with German morals is certainly the wrong approach.
But it is also wrong to ignore human rights issues for the sake of good business while cheerfully invoking the notion of trade that is automatically supposed to bring change.
But one thing is clear: The criteria we apply to other countries should be relatively consistent. This is precisely not the case with Saudi Arabia.
Germany and its allies have naturally attempted to forcefully bring about improvements in human rights, democracy and the rule of law by imposing sanctions on countries like Belarus, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
Yet we curry favor with Saudi Arabia by sending cabinet ministers to Riyadh. In fact, despite some restrictions, Saudi Arabia is still one of the most important target markets for German arms exports.
Of course, Saudi Arabia is simply too important to cut off relations. The Saudis have cleverly positioned themselves as allies of the West, and they provide us with oil. But the West is paying a high price for this partnership, morally and politically.
Our dangerous tolerance of Riyadh has already weakened the West's position, because it allows other problematic countries to accuse the West of having double standards. Besides, the Arab Spring showed how quickly supposedly reliable allies of the West can be swept away by the rage of opposed people. It is probably only a matter of time before the same thing happens in Saudi Arabia.
Germany should gradually distance itself from its supposed friends in Riyadh. This would be both morally correct and politically prudent.
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