Germany and the Middle East: A tale of morals and markets

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On its homepage, Germany’s foreign ministry lists “peace and security, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and commitment to multilateralism,” as the guiding principles of German foreign policy.

Just a few lines later, however, it says that Germany, as a trading nation, has a particular interest in an effective foreign economic policy “that helps companies to tap into international markets and to improve the conditions for doing business.”

So what happens when these two fundamental principles collide?

It is perhaps no surprise that the German government welcomed the mass protests and striving for democracy in what became known as the “Arab Spring” — even if that movement by and large ended in failure and frustration. It is moreover commonplace to hear German politicians condemning human rights abuses in the Arab-speaking world, including torture, the incarceration of opposition activists, the oppression of women.

Germany also took in some 770,000 Syrian refugees and provided rapid and unbureaucratic support for many at a time of great suffering and need.

At the same time, though, Germany has worked hard to build trade ties with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Countries that — in view of their human rights records — Germany should perhaps really be shunning. And above all, representatives of business and politics are all too often willing to turn a blind eye to the lucrative trade in military equipment. And worse, say critics.

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