Saudi Leopards

Last week the Dutch parliamentary year finished, with on Thursday voting on hundreds of motions. Twelve of them were on arms export policy issues, many of them referring to the political storm in the Middle East and North Africa.

The minister of Foreign Trade, Henk Bleker, was quick to advise against all motions. Nevertheless, late-night voting showed majority support for three of them, including one concerning a ban on arms export and transit licences for Saudi Arabia for “as long as this country does not carry out meaningful structural reforms. GreenLeft MP Arjan El Fassed comments: “It should be impossible anyway to deliver arms to a country with such a bad record I terms of human rights”.

In April, Uri Rosenthal, the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, had to answer questions by this MP on the export to the Saudis of Thales Nederland SOTAS communication systems for US-built Abrams tanks. With – back then – Saudi tanks amassed along the border and their deployment in neighbouring Bahrain, the minister acknowledged that under the current circumstances a similar licence would not be granted.

Last weekend in Germany Der Spiegel magazine broke the news of a major German tank deal with Saudi Arabia, 200 pieces of ‘Leopard 2A7+’ battle tanks worth a few billions of Euros for the companies Kraus-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall.

Press agency AFP notes that “Germany, which has declined for over 20 years to sell such heavy weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over human rights and fears for Israel’s security, refused to confirm the report. But the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) paper reported the deal is already done and that both Israel and the US signed off before the final decision was made on June 27.”

Meanwhile German opposition parties have spoken out strongly against any such deal.

The Frankfurter Rundschau on Tuesday highlighted the special position of the kingdom amidst the Arab spring, trying as much as it can to maintain the status quo of the past. Earlier this year King Abdullah personally pressed US president Obama to continue supporting Egyptian president Mubarak. Similarly he is said to support Assad’s iron grip on Syria. And of course Saudi Arabia is now harbouring the convicted ex-Tunisian president Ben Ali and hospitalising the wounded Yemeni president Saleh. No political spring in Saudi Arabia any time soon.

The order is likely to have implications for the Dutch industry as well. As part of so-called offset agreements from the 1980, a few companies have continued to be involved in the production of components for the Leopard. While no more details of the German-Saudi deal are known yet, such involvement appears likely to happen this time again. And therefore at some time Dutch authorities will have to deal with the required export licence – also in the light of a parliamentary majority that voted in favour of a ban on arms exports to Riyadh.


[FS, 6 July 2011]