AWhen it was announced in the government press conference that Olaf Scholz am going to embark on a trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar this Saturday, the focus was clearly on one topic: the meeting with the Saudi heir to the throne, Muhammad bin Salman, and the brutal murder of the critic of the crown prince, Jammal Khashoggi, whose body is still missing had been dismembered with a bone saw at the scene of the crime, the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Muhammad bin Salman was shunned for a long time after the fall of 2018; American secret services assume that he had set the assassination squad in motion.
The Chancellor now joins the ranks of statesmen who are softening this attitude. Most recently, Joe Biden's visit to the UK in July caused a stir. The US President was forced to overcome his uneasiness because he desperately needed his Saudi allies to cushion the impact of the war in Ukraine on the US economy, especially in light of rising oil prices.
So Scholz's trip is now like a diplomatic tightrope walk. On the one hand, concrete contributions to the energy supply were promised on the day before departure. On the other hand, reference was made in Berlin to foreign policy necessities. Of course, "what happened" plays a role, it was said. But in a world with the most violent upheavals, new alliances must be made or old connections strengthened. In this way, Scholz wants to promote the position of the West in the region that the Russian attack on Ukraine affects the whole world.
This ambivalence is constantly noticeable in Berlin. One hears: "This is not an energy shopping spree that we are doing." And then with a view to the urgently needed gas: "The volume of deliveries can be expanded." On another sheet it says: How quickly do the rulers in the Gulf want and can deliver ?
Although Saudi Arabia is best known as an oil producer, it has large natural gas reserves that have so far been used for domestic needs. But the country has ambitious plans and aims to become a natural gas exporter by 2030. According to the Federal Foreign Office, the kingdom is the second most important trading partner in the region and an important export market for the German economy. Saudi Arabia is investing massively in climate-friendly technologies and energy sources such as hydrogen.
However, as the Khashoggi case has shown, the impulsive crown prince sometimes puts political displeasure ahead of his business interests. In addition, the human rights situation is appalling. Although Muhammad bin Salman in the process of opening up the conservative Saudi society with a crowbar - at the same time the repressive apparatus acts with relentless severity against all who question its authority.
The United Arab Emirates, the second stop on the Chancellor's Gulf trip, are also governed in an authoritarian manner. Ruler Muhammad bin Zayed, the country's strongman, has a low tolerance for criticism and has a ubiquitous apparatus of surveillance and repression. In addition, the Emirates are pursuing policies in the region that run counter to Western interests. For example in the Libyan conflict, where the leadership in Abu Dhabi is seen as an ally of the East Libyan military leader Chalifa Haftar, who in turn is seen as a saboteur of international mediation efforts.
However, the Emirates are attractive as partners in economic and energy matters. They are the most important Arab trading partner for Germany, are interesting as a natural gas supplier from Berlin's point of view - and at the same time with a view to hydrogen research and production, where the Emirates are ahead of the competition in the Gulf. Germany and the Emirates had intensified their cooperation in this field as Federal Economics Ministers Robert Habeck traveled to the Gulf in March.
Qatar, where Scholz is expected on Sunday, had dampened German expectations of being able to quickly step into the breach as a substitute supplier for Russian gas. At the time, Habeck spoke of an agreement on a long-term energy partnership and explained that Germany had come a good deal closer to the goal of making itself less dependent on Russian gas. Qatari Energy Minister Saad al-Kaabi told the FAZ shortly thereafter that there was no agreement at all. It's just that the discussions about the supply of liquefied natural gas, which have been going on for years, have picked up speed again. Larger export capacities would not be free until 2026 anyway.
Qatar is also an authoritarian monarchy with an arch-conservative state Islam. As the host of the soccer World Cup, the country is in focus, and with it the exploitation of foreign low-wage workers. According to human rights activists, their situation is also Saudi Arabia and the Emirates bad - even worse.