German Ban on Arms Exports to Saudis Spurs Pushback

Germany's ruling parties are at odds over the decision to ban all German arms experts to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Jamal Khashoggi killing. While some argue it is a question of values, others worry it is undermining European cooperation. 

Thomas Müller has something to say about what happens when questions of morals dominate politics. He's the CEO of Hensoldt Holding GmbH, a defense industry company based in the village of Taufkirchen, near Munich. Overall, the company is doing quite well, with 4,400 employees around the world. But several deals have recently fallen through. One with Airbus Helicopters, a manufacturer based in Marseille, France, for instance, is currently on the verge of collapsing.

The French wanted to install the German company's missile-warning system in 23 helicopters ordered by Saudi Arabia, but would now likely prefer to purchase the technology from Saab. To the French, the Swedish manufacturer seems more reliable. The result being that an eight-figure deal could fall apart for Hensoldt.

"Our employees no longer understand the world," says CEO Müller. Foreign manufacturers, he says, are increasingly turning their backs on German components out of concern over Germany's strict export policies. Müller has lodged a complaint in response with the responsible ministers in the German government. He believes they are to blame for the problem, and argues that Germany is now considered a country with which one no longer wants to do business in the defense sector.

The reason is a moral decision made by the German government this past November, when it made the decision to stop exporting all military equipment to Saudi Arabia. The move came in reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who had been critical of the Saudi government. The ban on exports recently got extended until March 9.

It's one thing to make a decision based on moral values; it is another to make one based on political pragmatism. But when these choices collide, despite the best of intentions, they can prove to be irreconcilable.

In pragmatic terms, Germany is an important country for the defense sector. Based on 2014 numbers by the Wifor Institute, a German economics research institute, the industry employs 136,000 people and creates a direct gross value added (GVA) of 12.2 billion euros. The sector isn't huge. Only four German companies count among the Top 100 firms in the field, but their products are valued internationally, because they are made by highly skilled workers, often in small- to mid-sized businesses. Last year, the German government approved arms exports worth 4.8 million euros.

Spiegel online, 06.03.2019
Morals vs. Pragmatism