Prospects for a German Middle East Policy

A Hint of Change: Prospects for a German Middle East Policy

As Angela Merkel’s 16-year long chancellorship is ending, the formation of a new government in Berlin may give Germany’s foreign policy towards the Middle East new impetus and direction. Due to the Arab Uprisings in 2011 and the events of 2015 – often referred to as a refugee crisis – Germany recognised that developments in the Middle East have direct repercussions for its political interests abroad as well as at home. Whereas Germany’s value-based foreign policy approach will largely remain unchanged, the mounting challenges and threats emerging from conflicts in the Middle East require Berlin to define its self-interests in the region more clearly and allocate its capacities wisely. All the more so, since the conflict lines in the Middle East have exacerbated, regional power structures are shifting, and with the US – Europe’s main ally – retreating, Germany will have to shoulder greater responsibility in its own extended neighbourhood. In order to seize this opportunity, Berlin must, however, first resolve its inherent contradictions.

Guiding Principles and Operational Framework

Germany’s foreign policy identity and principles are deeply rooted in the country’s past. Turning away from aggressive nationalism and militarism Germany has developed a foreign policy embedded in regionalism and multilateralism, characterised by a pacifist underpinning and a pronounced sense of international responsibility.[i] The Federal Foreign Office’s guiding principles to date read as follows: “a sovereign Europe, the transatlantic partnership, support for peace and security, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and commitment to multilateralism.”[ii]

Long-standing relations between Berlin and Teheran as well as Germany’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts have placed the initial negotiations and more recent attempts to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme high on Germany’s agenda.

With regard to Germany’s foreign policy towards the Middle East, the security of Israel as reason of state and progress in the Middle East Peace Process are constants that derive from Germany’s historical responsibility for the holocaust. In parallel to that, Germany remains committed to a two-state solution.[iii] Further, long-standing relations between Berlin and Teheran as well as Germany’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation efforts have placed the initial negotiations and more recent attempts to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear programme high on Germany’s agenda.[iv] Germany typically acted – and still acts to a large extent today – through the EU’s external policy framework, in particular the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), the Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP) and to a limited extent the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) with contributions to civilian and training missions in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Libya.

With the events of the Arab Uprisings and its consequences, Berlin has increased and broadened its involvement in the Middle East not only diplomatically and financially but also – though more cautiously – with contributions to military training and reconnaissance missions. Germany’s increased involvement can be seen, for instance, in Chancellor Merkel’s refugee policy in 2015, the commitment of vast economic resources for humanitarian aid and stabilisation efforts above all in Syria; Germany’s participation in the Global Coalition against Daesh in Iraq and Syria since 2015, and since 2020, in contributions to capacity building as part of the NATO Mission in Iraq.[v] With its involvement in the Anti-IS Coalition, Germany even stretched the boundaries of its legal framework, according to which external operations of its Federal Armed Forces require a UN or NATO mandate.[vi] However, such contributions and the use of hard power in general remain controversial. In 2019, despite its economic dependency on exports, Germany rejected requests by the US and the UK to join respective naval missions in the Strait of Hormuz for fear of getting tangled up in a confrontation with Iran.[vii]

Policy Challenges and Opportunities

While foreign policy was not the central subject in the run-up to the German federal elections held on 26 September 2021, the three parties most likely to form a new government – the Social Democrats, the Green and the Liberal Party – reiterate Germany’s current foreign policy guidelines. In their electoral programmes, all three parties reaffirm the security of Israel as German reason of state. Also, the maintenance of the JCPOA enjoys cross-party-consensus, even though it is not mentioned in the Liberals’ election programme. While the Social Democrats describe themselves as the “peace party,” only the Greens express their concerns about the human rights situation in the Middle East in their programme. While the security of Israel featured in the results of the exploratory talks between the three parties prior to the coalition negotiations, the JCPOA did not. Further, the parties stress the need for a “disarmament offensive” and the intention to take “a leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation regimes.”[viii]

While one can expect overall continuity in German foreign policy in the years to come, the parameters of the regional and global balance of power is shifting and a new conflict-prone order is taking shape in the Middle East.[ix] These developments undermine Germany’s guiding principles and further challenge its agenda in the region. However, this also means that opportunities are emerging. Germany should recognise them as such and should not be shy to seize them.

Berlin has subordinated itself to Washington’s leadership in the region and remains dependent on its capacities.

The successive retreat of the US affects the bounds of Germany and Europe’s actions in the Middle East. Berlin has subordinated itself to Washington’s leadership in the region and remains dependent on its capacities. The chaotic and deadly withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 has demonstrated this very recently but it also becomes apparent in Syria and Iraq where the deterrence effect of US-presence is crucial to Germany’s humanitarian aid and stabilisation efforts. Especially under President Donald Trump, the US thwarted the tenets of a transatlantic Middle East policy by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, engineering the so-called Abraham Accords, and withdrawing from the JCPOA.

With the paralysis of the UN Security Council, NATO’s lack of direction, and frequent divergences between European member states in foreign policy, Germany’s preferred approach – acting as part of multilateral set-ups – is severely weakened. Moreover, regional players such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, and Turkey but also greater powers such as Russia have emerged strongly from the geostrategic disruptions of the Arab Uprisings, and take advantage of the vacuum of the American retreat. They intervene on opposing sides of regional conflicts and deploy proxies and mercenaries to achieve their goals, thwarting German diplomacy and mediation efforts. Despite the arms embargo agreed at the First Berlin Conference on Libya, Russia, Turkey and the UAE bluntly breached this accord and thus made the EU monitoring naval mission Irini superfluous. It was not the pledges made in Berlin that eventually led to a relative easing of tensions and the return to a political process, but the military facts on the ground, created first and foremost by Turkey and Russia.[x]

As troublesome as these challenges may appear, they also contain opportunities for a stronger German engagement in the Middle East. Washington’s foreign policy shift towards Asia and China is primarily a loss for Berlin and Brussels. It may nevertheless present Germany and the EU with a chance to finding own solutions to the conflicts in their neighbourhood and developing autonomous Middle East policies.

Recent successes show that Berlin is capable of achieving political objectives in the Middle East with partners beside the US. In February 2020, Germany initiated a diplomatic format with France, Jordan, and Egypt to advocate for the two-state-solution in the bogged down conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In summer 2020, the quartet’s foreign ministers jointly campaigned against Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, which could eventually be averted.[xi] And while such multilateral ventures seem more promising, Germany has also shown that it will continue to launch initiatives on its own. In response to or rather despite the suppression of the Arab Uprisings, Germany aims to promote democratic reforms and structures by means of its so-called Ta’aziz Partnership that was announced in February 2021 and currently includes among others Iraq and Lebanon.[xii]

The paralysis of the UN Security Council and NATO could be an incentive for Germany to mobilise the EU more strongly for action in the region and to reconsider its own restraint with regard to military contributions. Germany should thus revitalise its role in EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, while also exploring which actions it can pursue in smaller formats above all within the E3 and with Italy. French President Emmanuel Macron advocated for a renewal of the partnership between Paris and Berlin and has frequently stressed the EU’s need for strategic autonomy in foreign affairs. While Merkel has often been criticised for not responding to these calls, a new German government may seize this opportunity.[xiii] Within the EU, Germany has the weight to foster unity among its partners. Berlin could use this weight to prevent EU member states from pursuing antagonistic policies such as France and Italy’s support for opposing sides in Libya. Further, Germany’s inclusive approach to CFSP puts it in a good place to forge joint positions in external relations and bring on board EU member states like Hungary and Poland, whose vetoes of EU Council’s declarations constantly obstruct cooperation.

Double-Standards and Inherent Contradictions

Clashes between proclaimed values and self-interest become particularly evident when looking at Germany’s policy towards migration and refugees, counterterrorism efforts, as well as commercial affairs and trade.

Observers often lamented that Germany’s motivations for its external actions frequently remain unclear.[xiv] While Berlin stresses its international responsibility all too often, in fact, it rarely expresses its actual self-interests. In order for Germany to be able to address the above identified challenges and opportunities in the Middle East, it must first resolve its inherent contradictions. Clashes between proclaimed values and self-interest become particularly evident when looking at Germany’s policy towards migration and refugees, counterterrorism efforts, as well as commercial affairs and trade. Almost none of Germany’s foreign ties with Middle Eastern countries can escape this dichotomy. It is reflected in Germany’s relations with a number of Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE, but also with Egypt, Iran, Israel, Syria and Turkey.

In the summer of 2015, Chancellor Merkel expressed her optimism about the challenges of the immigration and integration of Syrian refugees in three words: “Wir schaffen das” (We can do this”).[xv] Six years later, Germany remains divided on the migration and refugee issue and it is an open secret that Germany’s policy towards Europe’s extended neighbourhood aims at combating migration and flight, as well as their root causes in countries of origin and transit, such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Which countries of origin shall be classified as safe and which as unsafe is frequently part of domestic political debates and therefore, so are deportations back to the region. At first sight, Germany’s refugee policy abroad can easily be reconciled with its value-based foreign policy. The promotion of values such as peace and security, democracy, and human rights seems largely compatible with combating the causes of migration and flight.

In the past, however, Germany has negotiated a number of deals in which it has put its self-interest before its proclaimed values, and will presumably continue to do so in the future. The best-known deal of this kind is the one struck between the EU and Turkey, presented in March 2016 by Merkel, whose person is considered as the primary driving force behind the agreement. By making Turkey a central pillar of Germany and the EU’s migration and refugee policy eventually, Berlin and Brussels have not only strengthened the increasingly authoritarian government in Ankara but have since been dependent on it. This makes criticism of Turkey difficult and the enforcement of moral standards practically impossible. Yet, in June 2021, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas pleaded for a new deal with Ankara.[xvi] Due to the withdrawal of the US and its allies from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, a similar agreement may soon be struck with Iran. In fact, the idea is already on the table.[xvii] With regard to Turkey, the idea has backfired. From a German perspective, Ankara’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy in Libya, Northern Syria, and the Eastern Mediterranean is highly problematic, as it runs counter to Berlin’s stabilisation efforts in the region.[xviii] A refugee deal with Iran would have similar consequences. Since 2011, Teheran has significantly extended its influence in the Middle East and has become a major destabilising player in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and to a lesser extent in Yemen.[xix]

From a German perspective, the nuclear agreement is an important element of the global non‑proliferation architecture, security in the Middle East – above all of Israel – but even European and global security.

With regard to Iran, Berlin is confronted with an additional dilemma closely linked to the German reason of state regarding the security of Israel. For one thing, Iranians and their proxies in the region frequently aggress Israel, and the government in Teheran is responsible for massive human rights violations domestically. For another, Germany alongside its E3-partners attempts to revive the JCPOA. From a German perspective, the nuclear agreement is an important element of the global non‑proliferation architecture, security in the Middle East – above all of Israel – but even European and global security. The new realities in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover could create new incentives to find joint solutions with Iran. Tehran is threatening to send the already more than two million Afghan refugees to Europe.[xx] It is not far-fetched that Iran will try to use this as leverage to gain concessions, for instance, regarding the nuclear negotiations. Therefore, a new government in Berlin must ask itself whether it can foster closer cooperation with Iran vis-à-vis its allies, including the US and Israel but also Saudi Arabia and the UAE, especially in spite of Iran’s destabilising interventions in the region.

It is hardly surprising, that as a nation whose prosperity is based on exports, “Germany has a particular interest in an effective external economic policy that helps companies to tap into international markets and to improve the conditions for doing business.”[xxi] This is problematic as Germany exports weapons and military equipment to countries of the Middle East and specifically the Gulf. Indeed, the latter are Germany’s main clients. Weapon exports soared following the Arab uprisings. Politicians in Germany frequently criticise Arab states’ military interventions and support for armed groups in the Middle East.[xxii] On the one hand, Berlin claims to be committed to disarmament and arms control efforts. On the other hand, the German arms industry has exported war weapons for around 4.5 billion euros during the current election period. Of this, weapons worth more than 1 billion euros went to Egypt, whose government systematically violates human rights and meddles in Yemen and Libya. Saudi Arabia and Turkey were also among the top ten arms recipient countries in the period since October 2017.[xxiii] These revenues will make it difficult for a new German government to ignore the potential damage for Germany’s trade and business interests when it wants to criticise the countries’ human rights or international law violations.

A Hint of Change

Germany’s engagement and willingness to commit financial, technical and military means to contribute to the stabilisation of the Middle East has grown. A new government will not deviate fundamentally from Germany’s current course in the Middle East. It may, however, differ from its predecessor in a few crucial nuances, above all with regard to arms exports, human rights and perhaps a new impetus for stronger cooperation within the EU. For this very reason, Berlin will need to increase its level of ambition, especially if it wants to resolve challenges in the Middle East by upholding its proclaimed values while at the same time pursuing its core interests. Formulating these interests and re-evaluating where they run counter to its values will thus be an essential task for the forthcoming government. Double-standards and inherent contradictions will only harm Berlin’s credibility and allow regional and global powers to further limit its room for manoeuvre in the Middle East.

[i] Jamie Gaskarth and Kai Oppermann, “Clashing Traditions: German Foreign Policy in a New Era,” International Studies Perspectives, 22:1, February 2021, pp. 84-105,[ii] “Germany’s foreign and European policy principles,” German Federal Foreign Office, October 9, 2019,
[iii] “Federal Chancellor Merkel in Israel: ‘When it comes to the safety and security of Israel, Germany is not neutral’,” German Federal Government, October 11, 2021,
[iv] Jefferson Chase, “Iran nuclear deal: Germany’s special role and plans,” Deutsche Welle, May 8, 2018,
[v] “Hilfe für Syrien und syrische Flüchtlinge,” German Federal Foreign Office, June 2020,; “Iraq,” German Federal Foreign Office, September 9, 2020,; Kate Martyr, “The German Bundeswehr’s missions in the Middle East,” Deutsche Welle, January 7, 2020,; Ben Knight, “German government divided over joining Strait of Hormuz naval mission,” Deutsche Welle, July 29, 2020,
[vi] “Irak-Einsatz laut Bundestagsjuristen verfassungswidrig,” Die Zeit, January 15, 2015,
[vii] “Germany will not join US naval mission in Strait of Hormuz,” Deutsche Welle, July 31, 2019,
[viii] “Ergebnis der Sondierungen zwischen SPD, BÜNDNIS 90/DIE GRÜNEN und FDP,” Die Grünen, October 15, 2021,
[ix] Muriel Asseburg and Sarah Charlotte Henkel, “Normalisation and Realignment in the Middle East,” SWP Comment 2021/C 45, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), July 28, 2021,
[x] Wolfram Lacher, “Libyen ist noch keine Erfolgsgeschichte,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), June 22, 2021,
[xi] “Paris Meeting On the Middle East Peace Process,” Joint Statement, Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan, French Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs, March 11, 2021,
[xii] “Ta’ziz partnership with the countries of North Africa and the Middle East,” German Federal Foreign Office, October 20, 2021,
[xiii] Wolfram Lacher, “Macron as a Spoiler in Libya,” Ronja Kempin (ed.), “France’s Foreign and Security Policy under President Macron,” SWP Research Paper 2021/RP 04, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), May 28, 2021,
[xiv] Guido Steinberg, “German Middle East and North Africa Policy,” SWP Research Paper 2009/RP 09, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), September 15, 2009
[xv] Christoph Hasselbach, “Five years on: How Germany’s refugee policy has fared,” Deutsche Welle, August 25, 2015,
[xvi] “Maas für neuen Flüchtlingsdeal mit der Türkei,” Deutsche Welle, June 21, 2021,
[xvii] Philip Volkmann-Schluck, “Deutschland muss über einen Flüchtlingsdeal mit Iran nachdenken,” Die Welt, August 15, 2021,
[xviii] Sinem Adar et al., “Visualizing Turkey’s Foreign Policy Activism,” Centre for Applied Turkey Studies (CATS), 20 August, 2020,
[xix] Guido Steinberg, “The ‘Axis of Resistance’,” SWP Research Paper 2021/RP 06, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), August 12, 2021,
[xx] Juliane Schäuble et al., “Von Deutschland wird mehr außenpolitisches Engagement erwartet,” Der Tagesspiegel, September 26, 2021,
[xxi] “Germany’s foreign and European policy principles,” German Federal Foreign Office, October 9, 2019,
[xxii] Yannik Hüllinghorst and Stephan Roll, “German Arms Exports and the Militari­sation of Arab States’ Foreign Policies,” SWP Comment 2021/C 06, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), January 21, 2021,
[xxiii] “Rüstungsindustrie verkauft Kriegswaffen für 4,5 Milliarden Euro,” Die Zeit, September 24, 2021,

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