There is no civil war in the world today whose effects are so detrimental to civilians as the conflict engulfing Yemen. The war, pitting a Houthi rebellion in control of the Yemeni capital against the nominal Yemeni government in the south, just crossed its four-year anniversary last week. The United Nations is trying its best to end the fighting, with little to show for it other than a ceasefire in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida which may or (more likely) may not get peace talks off the ground.
Unlike the United Kingdom, which has exported £5.7 billion of arms to the Saudi-led military coalition bombing Yemen to smithereens, Germany has largely been a passive spectator to the conflict. To the extent Berlin is involved at all, it is with political statements calling on the country’s warring sides to sit down and talk. During a donor conference last month, Germany pledged over £86m (€100 m) in humanitarian aid for a Yemeni population sorely in need of international assistance.
Just as important as what the German government is doing, however, is what it’s not doing: selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, the country responsible for most of the civilian casualties in Yemen as it seeks to drive the Houthis back into their caves in the north. Last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel decided to extend the temporary moratorium for another six months—a freeze that is desperately annoying to the UK and France, both of whom would rather pretend the Saudis are doing their best in order to justify business as usual.
Jeremy Hunt has testified that resolving Yemen’s civil war is a top item on his ministry’s agenda. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Hunt penned a letter to his German colleague asking him to loosen the Saudi arms moratorium. It’s surprising because some of those very same weapons are being used by the Saudis to pound targets in Yemen which, in turn, kill more civilians and make the prospects of a political solution to the war more difficult. Hunt's request has, unsurprisingly, gone down badly in Berlin.
The French are none to pleased either. Because Germany refuses to export defence equipment, any French hardware even remotely using German parts or technology is off the shelf for export. Paris is griping about sunk costs and beginning to suggest that future German-French cooperation on joint defence projects could be at risk if Merkel doesn’t stop being so strict. As one French official told the Financial Times:
“We are basically betting the future of the French defence industry on co-operation with Germany, and that requires guarantees that we will not become the victim of domestic German political games.”
In all fairness to France, arms export policy is a domestic political issue for the Germans. In order to get the Social Democrats on board a coalition government, Merkel agreed to cease arms sales to any nation participating in Yemen’s civil war. While Merkel has shown some leniency on taking a second look at the policy, the Social Democrats are dead set against more exports to the Saudis. And it’s not hard to see why.
Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen has been a bumbling catastrophe for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose credibility as a leader is already severely shaken after the Jamal Khashoggi murder, slower-than-expected foreign investment, the kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, and the counterproductive blockade on Qatar. The Saudis have prosecuted the war so abysmally that US lawmakers—who generally see any country in Middle East opposed to Iran as worthy of support—voted across party lines to withdraw all military assistance to the Saudi coalition within 30 days of the bill’s passage (Trump will veto the resolution once it crosses his desk). The statistics coming out of Yemen are horrifying: 24 million people in need of humanitarian aid; 3.3m displaced; 20 million (about 67 per cent of the population) hungry; and all kinds of civilian structures levelled to the ground in indiscriminate airstrikes from bombs sold by the US, the UK, and France. Just last week, a medical facility operated by Save the Children was demolished in one of those strikes; seven people were killed in the attack, including four children.
None of this is especially appealing to Germans, who remain sceptical of outside interventions and are much more prone to searching for diplomatic ways out of a crisis. Nobody in Germany is voting for a party based on whether it wants to sell weapons to Arab monarchies. Indeed, taking such a position would likely hurt rather than help.
For Angela Merkel, suspending arms to Saudi Arabia is the right call—morally, strategically, and diplomatically. German and European defence manufacturers will lose money, but Europeans will be able to sleep at night knowing that fewer of their bombs are being callously dropped on hospitals, markets, mosques, wedding halls, and homes.
If anything, Western governments should be applauding Germany for its stance. And after they applaud, they ought to follow Berlin’s lead.