The visit of German Foreign Minister Franz-Walter Steinmeier to the Kingdom could not have come at a more critical time. Regional events are pushing the Middle East toward implosion with devastating consequences that will also impact Europe. The armed conflict is now at the doorstep of Europe, as Turkey has become a front-line state. The wave of European citizens joining the battlefield in Syria and Iraq should be a matter of serious concern for European security. To stem and reverse the tide, close cooperation and action by Saudi Arabia and Germany is needed now more than ever.
Saudi Arabia and Germany maintain a positive and forward-looking relationship. Current ties are based on common principles of peace, security and development. Overall, as far as Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC countries are concerned, Germany is seen as a respected and valuable partner. But in the Gulf, it is also viewed, as a partner that refrains from taking an active political role that is commensurate with its economic power and its position as a leading European country. Given the current challenges that the Middle East is confronted with, such a stance is insufficient. Instead, what the Middle East needs now is a more proactive Germany working both on the front and behind the scenes, and with regional partners on bilateral as well as multilateral levels.
Not in recent memory have the challenges facing the Middle East been so numerous, so complicated and the outlook for a resolution been so unclear. The GCC countries understand that the current situation requires an abandonment of their traditional quiet, behind-the-scenes approach to foreign policy and the pursuit of a more active and even public role to steer developments in the right direction. The previous diffident policy cannot continue for long in this rapidly changing security environment.
A readiness to engage must also extend to actors outside the GCC. In this context, Germany and Saudi Arabia need to extend their dialogue in order to find solutions to the most pressing problems in the Middle East. This includes, first and foremost, making determined efforts to carry forward the fight against terrorism and extremism along the lines of King Abdullah’s statement made at the end of August 2014. In Syria, the unacceptable situation requires a more sustained and concerted policy that includes assisting the moderate Syrian opposition. Neither the plight of the Syrian people nor the threat of Islamic extremism as embodied by the Islamic State (IS) can be resolved as long as President Bashar Assad remains in power. It cannot be ignored that the continuance of the Assad regime has only increased the influence of the IS extremists, and Germany as well as other members of the European Union must depart from the wavering US policy on this issue.
Meanwhile, countries like Egypt and Tunisia need to be provided with the tools to regain their political stability and economic viability. Besides, Germany can assist those countries in the Middle East torn apart by conflict and turmoil in rebuilding their societies by, for example, encouraging the processes for institution-building, the implementation of rule of law, and widespread economic reforms. There is an urgent need to re-establish the trust of people within their fractured societies and to bring about a consensus under which truly genuine reform efforts can be undertaken. There is an urgent need for security sector reforms, better provision of local social services, as well as economic and financial reform that is critical for macro-economic stability.
In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Germany need to work together to ensure that Iran becomes a responsible member of a Gulf security community that respects the interests and sovereignty of its neighbors instead of promoting an interventionist and sectarian policy. Equally, the dispute over the Iranian nuclear program has to be brought to a resolution within the P5+1 framework with the necessary assurances to all regional states.
The German involvement in Iraq and its support for the Kurds is necessary and important. At the same time, such policy must be placed within the framework of establishing an inclusive political process for all ethnic groups within a future Iraqi state and not to encourage Kurdish aspirations to take advantage of the crisis and occupy Arab land around Kirkuk, for example.
And in Yemen, in addition to supporting the current legitimate government and containing Al-Qaeda activities, it is necessary to stop external intervention especially by Iran with its support for the Houthi rebellion. A failed Yemen would have devastating consequences for the Gulf and beyond.
Within the GCC, Germany should support the Gulf region in its integration drive and champion within the European Union better and deeper EU-GCC relations including bringing about the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement between the two.
Finally, one should not forget the importance of seeing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to their own state being realized and implemented. The Kingdom’s vision of a resolution to the conflict is embodied in the Arab Peace Plan first put forward by King Abdullah more than a decade ago.
Undoubtedly, a broader and deeper German involvement in regional issues will contribute to strengthening the processes of conflict resolution and prevention. Given the complexity of current developments in the Middle East as well as the interrelatedness of many of those issues, there is a further need to consider the future of Middle East security arrangements as a whole along with its corresponding consequences and opportunities for Europe in general and Germany in particular. Within this equation, Germany can and should take a lead role to draw up a new security arrangement in the region along the lines of the Helsinki process that existed at the height of the Cold War, which provided an avenue for confidence-building and dialogue among the parties in conflict.
Conceptualizing such a process and investing the necessary political capital to get all parties on board could be the most significant contribution Germany could make for the future of the Middle East.