Germany has announced a unilateral arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, but France, the UK, and the US have not followed suit, posing questions for Western unity in the Middle East.
“I agree with all those who say that the, albeit already limited, arms exports can’t take place in the situation we’re currently in,” German chancellor Angela Merkel told press in Berlin on Sunday (21 October).
“We condemn this act in the strongest terms … there is an urgent need to clarify what happened,” she said, referring to the Saudi killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who wrote for US newspaper The Washington Post.
Germany sold about €530m of mostly aircraft equipment to Saudi Arabia last year, according to its annual EU declaration.
Germany, France, and the UK made a show of unity in a joint statement.
“We will ultimately make our judgement [on sanctions] based on the credibility of the further explanation we receive about what happened and our confidence that such a shameful event cannot and will not ever be repeated,” they said.
Relations with Saudi Arabia depended on its “respect” for “the norms and values” of “international law”, they said.
Merkel’s economy minister Peter Altmeier urged other EU states to follow Germany.
“It would be important that we come to a joint European stance,” he told the ARD broadcaster.
“It will not have any positive consequences if we halt arms exports but other countries at the same time fill the gap,” he said.
But neither France, which sold €13.6bn worth of arms to Saudi Arabia last year, or the UK, which sold about €1bn, immediately followed Germany.
“I note that the Saudi authorities have … admitted the facts and accepted some responsibility, so we’re making progress,” French finance minister Bruno Le Maire said.
“The strength of our response will depend on … our confidence that it cannot happen ever again,” the British foreign office said.
Merkel’s decision came after Saudi Arabia admitted to killing Khashoggi in what it called a “rogue operation”.
It did it in its consulate in Istanbul in what the EU foreign service called “a shocking violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations”, a treaty that governs international diplomacy.
The EU currently has arms bans on China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and Yemen.
It has also blacklisted Belarus, Burma, several African states, North Korea, and Venezuela, but not Saudi Arabia.
An EU “code of conduct” on arms sales says member states ought to deny export licences if their weapons were to “prolong armed conflicts” or if clients violated “international humanitarian law”.
Saudi Arabia has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes in a civil war in Yemen, tortured and raped people, and used child soldiers, according to a UN report in August.
The Saudi kingdom also has the death penalty for homosexuality, among other human rights outrages.
But neither the EU’s non-binding code or Saudi Arabia’s track record stopped France from selling it €3bn of small arms, €3.7bn of bombs, €2.6bn of warships, and €1.3bn of military technology last year.
The UK sold it €600m of aircraft equipment and €156m of ammunition.
Belgium (€832m), Italy (€425m), Bulgaria (€279m), and Spain (€116) also sold notable quantities.
“We have a common position on arms exports that regulates many things in this sense, but final responsibility is with the member states, and hence this is a question that is in their hands”, an EU foreign service spokeswoman said on Monday.
For his part, US president Donald Trump recently boasted he would get $110bn (€96bn) in Saudi arms contracts, creating 40,000 jobs in America.
The arms sales are part of an old Western strategy to back Saudi Arabia and its allies in order to contain Iranian power in the Middle East.
The EU and US also used to buy Saudi oil but not Iranian oil exports.
The old order recently changed when EU states lifted their oil embargo on Iran in a nuclear arms control deal.
But US president Donald Trump stuck by Saudi Arabia and boycotted the accord.
He threatened sanctions against German and other EU firms in Iran, clashing with Merkel.
He said on Sunday he would speak to Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman “very soon” before deciding what to do.
“We’ll have an answer by probably Tuesday or so,” Trump said.
It remains to be seen what next steps France, the UK, and the US take as Turkish investigators reveal more details.
But if they let Saudi Arabia off the hook, it would leave Trump, once again, up against Merkel, amid already strained transatlantic ties.