Having been ambivalent about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Berlin should by now have learnt that, in the brutal world of global politics, it is vital that countries need to understand where their true interests lie.
Germany’s initial reluctance to fully support Ukraine after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked invasion may in large part have been due to Berlin’s heavy reliance on Moscow for its energy supplies. While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz eventually came round to the more resolute position held by countries such as the UK and Poland, his equivocation delayed the provision of vital equipment, such as main battle tanks, to the Ukrainians.
Yet, even after this salutary experience, it appears that Berlin still has not learned its lesson, particularly if its attitude to another major Western ally, namely Saudi Arabia, is anything to go by.
The Saudis, with their strict adherence to Islamic law, have never been the easiest of allies, but nevertheless have a proven track record of supporting the West in times of crisis. From its pivotal role in the First Gulf War to the vital intelligence it provided in helping to destroy al-Qaeda’s terrorist infrastructure, Riyadh has, time and again, proved its worth as a valued Western ally.
This explains why the British Government has been leading efforts to provide Saudi Arabia with state-of-the-art Typhoon Eurofighters to bolster the kingdom’s defences, a move that makes good strategic sense in terms of protecting UK interests. At the very least, a strong Saudi military acts as an important bulwark against the threat posed by Iran. Riyadh’s interest in buying weapons built by British firms such as BAE Systems also helps to sustain the UK’s military industrial base.
The strong intelligence-sharing and military ties London enjoys with Riyadh date back many decades, reaching their apex in the 1980s when the Thatcher government negotiated the complex al Yamamah deal, which resulted in the Saudi air force acquiring a fleet of Tornado fighters. Subsequent deals have seen the Saudis strengthen their air combat capabilities by signing agreements to acquire more Typhoon fighters and Hawk trainers.
The most recent deal, though, to sell 48 Typhoons to the Saudis, announced soon after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, made his last visit to the UK in 2018, has run into difficulty over Berlin’s refusal to sanction it.
As Germany was part of the original consortium involved in developing the Eurofighter, Berlin has the right to withhold its consent from any arms deal involving the aircraft. Consequently, having attracted widespread criticism for obstructing supplies of battle tanks to Ukraine, Germany now finds itself at risk of making a similar miscalculation by impeding the sale of jets to the Saudis.
Germany’s reluctance to sanction Britain’s latest deal with Riyadh, estimated to be worth £5 billion, is said to stem from concerns over the Saudis’ human rights record, especially their involvement in the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi five years ago.
Khashoggi’s murder was indeed a despicable crime, one that the Crown Prince has personally condemned. In a recent interview with Fox News, bin Salman repeated his view that the killing had been a “mistake”, and insisted that reforms had been made to the country’s security forces.
While he showed no hesitation in confronting the criticism his country has received over Khashoggi’s murder, the Crown Prince was equally keen to highlight the dramatic transformation that has taken place in Saudi Arabia during the past five years, both in terms of its economic development and its standing as a major global power.
From hosting an international summit on resolving the Ukraine conflict in August to playing a prominent role in the recent G20 summit in New Delhi, Saudi Arabia is adopting a more assertive role in world affairs, one that is undeniably in the West’s interests. There is even talk of a diplomatic rapprochement between the Saudis and Israel, with Israel’s tourism minister this week becoming the first cabinet member to visit the kingdom.
Yet, thanks to the Biden administration’s incoherent Middle East policy, Riyadh appears to be more interested in forging new alliances with Beijing and Moscow. The West’s declining influence is evident in the construction of Saudi Arabia’s new Neom megacity, which is primarily being built by Chinese firms.
At a time when the global landscape is undergoing radical change, it is vital that Western leaders overcome whatever reservations they have about engaging with the Saudis and ensure that Riyadh regards Washington and London, not Moscow and Beijing, as their principal allies.
The upcoming summit in London between bin Salman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is pressing Germany to approve the Typhoon sale, would be a good moment to begin reinvigorating this key alliance.