Saudi Relations

Diplomatic damage control

Bundesaußenminister Gabriel reist in die Golfregion
So let me tell you what you're doing wrong. Source: DPA

Diplomacy has never been a strength of Sigmar Gabriel, the hard-hitting, outspoken Social Democrat. The German foreign minister, who replaced the softer-spoken Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the beginning of the year, revealed that weak spot with yet another diplomatic faux pas – this one resulting in Germany’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia being summoned for a dressing down and Mr. Gabriel’s ministry scrambling to run interference.

In a move to deflate what could have become a politically explosive situation, a spokesperson told Handelsblatt that the minister’s recent comments about spreading “adventurism” in the Middle East referred to the “entire region” and not a particular country. Whether that explanation will improve Mr. Gabriel’s standing in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen. After his latest gaffe, the English-language Saudi newspaper “Arab News” referred to him as an “elephant in a china shop.”

What caused the stir were remarks Mr. Gabriel made on Friday after a meeting in Berlin with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil. He told reporters that Europe “could not tolerate the adventurism that has spread there.” It was not clear from the television recording that the remark was targeted at Saudi Arabia, but the kingdom saw an implied reference to its war in Yemen, its blockade of Qatar and involvement in Lebanese politics.

After Mr. Gabriel's latest gaffe, one Saudi newspaper referred to him as an “elephant in a china shop.”

On November 4, Lebanon’s then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri stunned his countrypeople with a televised resignation from Riyadh, raising concern over the country’s political and economic stability. Many Lebanese saw the move as a sign that Saudi Arabia – Mr. Hariri’s chief ally – had decided to drag his tiny nation into the Sunni kingdom’s feud with the region’s other powerhouse, predominately Shiite Iran. Many also feared Lebanon’s delicate sectarian-based political system could be easily upended if the country were dragged further into a battle for power between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Earlier this year, in an Handelsblatt interview, Mr. Gabriel riled the Saudi government with his criticism of the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in the worst split between the Arab states in decades. “Such a Trumpization of treatment is particularly dangerous in a region already plagued by crisis,” Mr. Gabriel said, warning of a growing conflict. “A further escalation would serve nobody. The Middle East is a political and military powder keg.”

LEBANON-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT
A poster of Lebanon's Saad Hariri in the Lebanese town of Tripoli. The words say: "May God protect you, Saad." Many locals believed that Mr. Hariri was forced to resign against his will by the Saudis. Source: Getty

The gaffes come against a background of German arms exports to Saudi Arabia and Egypt – nearly €450 million ($526 million) worth in the third quarter of this year, according to German government figures. While Egypt accounted for the lion’s share of the sales, making it the number-one export destination for German arms, Saudi Arabia forked over nearly €150 million.

How long Mr. Gabriel stays in the job remains to be seen, following the collapse of talks on Sunday between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc, the pro-business Free Democrats and environmentalist Greens to form a new coalition government. Mr. Steinmeier, a fellow Social Democrat, will have the ultimate say: He is now tasked with either bringing the four parties back together to form a coalition or convincing his own party to reconsider a “grand coalition” with Ms. Merkel or, if all that fails, calling for new elections. This process could take up to around five months.

If the parties return to the negotiating table, then possible successors include Cem Özdemir from the Greens and Alexander Graf Lambsdorff from the FDP, depending on the outcome of efforts to put a new government in power. Both are seasoned politicians, like Mr. Gabriel, but like the minister, Mr. Özdemir in particular is known not to mince words.

However if Mr Steinmeier fails to convince the four parties to form their “Jamaica” coalition (named after the parties black, yellow and green colors of the Jamaican flag) but manages to win over his Social Democrats to continue their coalition with Ms. Merkel, the Saudis and the rest of the world can look forward to another four years of Mr. Gabriel.

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Mathias Brüggmann is the head of Handelsblatt’s foreign affairs desk. John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. Moritz Koch, with Handelsblatt in Berlin, contributed to this story. To contact the authors: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com, blau@handelsblatt.com and  koch@handelsblatt.com

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