Why won't Berlin reconsider the ban on selling Typhoon to Saudi Arabia?

A series of recent press articles (notably The Times, Financial Times and Forbes) have claimed that Germany is willing to lift its ban on exporting another 48 Typhoons to Saudi Arabia. The problem is that, in all cases, it is pure misinformation.

First, there is no evidence that the German government has taken such action. On July 12, Chancellor Olaf Scholz publicly confirmed his decision to abide by the embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia imposed in November 2018. Traditionally, such a decision is made at the secret meeting of the Federal National Security Council (Bundesicherheitsrat) and is not made public.

This time, Scholz has not only confirmed the ban but also explained it in a position paper published on the Chancellery website (“Verständigung zum Umgang mit Genehmigungen von Rüstungsexporten und Gemeinschaftsprogrammen im Kontext des Jemen-Konflikt”): «Applications for export licenses to “Saudi Arabia will be postponed until the end of the Yemen war”

A public statement confirmed by an official position paper cannot be overturned overnight.

Secondly, there is nothing new to expect from Saudi Arabia. There has been much speculation in official British circles that Berlin would change its stance if Saudi Arabia played a key role in the conflict between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, but apart from convening summits, Riyadh has no secret wild cards: only Doha (Qatar ) has them and plays them carefully, but wisely.

Even if Saudi diplomacy were active, the more collateral damage Israel causes to the Palestinian population, the less Saudi Arabia will be able and willing to play a role that could force Berlin to review its ban. The German and Saudi positions are going to diverge: Berlin supports Tel-Aviv not only morally but also with massive arms supplies (from 32.3 to 302.8 million euros), while Saudi Arabia warns Israel of the high number of Dead Palestinians.

Third, maintaining the government coalition is Chancellor Scholz’s first priority, and selling weapons to Saudi Arabia is a red line, and even the British government knows it. No threat – whether legal, industrial or commercial – could reverse the Chancellor’s hierarchy of priorities. The “Jamaican coalition” or “traffic light coalition” that he governs is in poor shape, as polls and regional elections clearly illustrate, and the next 2025 election is very close.

If there is a bet that London could win, it is to wait and see what happens after 2025: the possible candidacy of Defense Minister Boris Pistorius could be the wild card that could possibly lift the embargo.

In short, all the articles reporting a hypothetical review of Berlin’s positions on this matter are largely influenced (and perhaps written) by those in the United Kingdom and Germany who have a vital interest in this case. So far, they have written in vain, and one can guess that the more pressure is put on Berlin, the less effective it will be.

France has been called to the rescue: “First the Typhoon, then the FCAS,” was the slogan. Also in this case, the arrow does not hit the target: The FCAS is still far on the horizon, while the sale of the Rafale is a short-term case, as the authors of the articles know perfectly well.

If the success of the Rafale is far from certain, largely for political reasons, the demise of the Typhoon is close: with no domestic orders and only problematic export projects in sight (Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Austria), the lines of Manching and Warton assembly will have to close after the end of the Quadriga (Germany) and Halcon (Spain) contracts. Airbus’s various lobbying efforts to generate new orders from Germany and Spain are unlikely to change Berlin’s mind.

Regarding the Saudi search for new fighters and if Mohammed bin Salman wants to have a true and reliable double source, the choice of the Rafale will be a logical solution that will lead, through the different regulations, to participation in the Saudi fighter program new generation of FCAS. 

Alistair Davidson