Germany faces the profound challenge of trying to diversify its energy supply while a destabilizing war rages on in Ukraine. Hence, the German government has entered into new energy partnerships with several Gulf monarchies — namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The Gulf monarchies should not only be looked at as providers of energy, however; in an increasingly multipolar world, they are emerging as relevant global political powers in their own right. Therefore, they are of rising political and security relevance for Germany. Notwithstanding heated domestic debates over controversial topics such as these Gulf states’ human rights record, Berlin should thus consider a more comprehensive strategic approach toward the Gulf monarchies that encompasses strategic issues beyond energy supply, such as joint efforts in regional integration and development.

Momentum for new energy partnerships

In September 2022, Germany and Qatar agreed to enter into a more comprehensive energy partnership, including German purchases of liquified natural gas (LNG) from the state-owned company Qatar Energy, via the U.S.-based ConocoPhillips, for 15 years, starting in 2026. This cooperation model marked a turning point in Germany’s relations with the Gulf monarchies. Heretofore, Germany’s economic engagement with the Gulf has been mainly driven by non-energy exports in the automotive, manufacturing, infrastructure or service sectors. In 2021, the total value of imports and exports between Germany and the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) equaled €18.9 billion, with German exports contributing €13 billion in the trade balance. The UAE is Germany’s main trade partner in the GCC with a volume of €8 billion followed by Saudi Arabia with €6.6 billion. In particular Qatar is heavily invested in German companies such as Deutsche Bank (8% share), Hapag-Lloyd (13%) or Volkswagen (17%), and Qatar Airways sponsors the top football club Bayern Munich. Energy-sector partnerships, in contrast, remained limited — until Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022, re-invasion of Ukraine created new, urgent incentives for such cooperation.

Prior to the war, Germany received 55% of its gas supply from Russia. The over-reliance on Russian energy sources, in turn, created a highly problematic political dependence on congenial relations with the Kremlin. So when Chancellor Olaf Scholz described the Russian attack on Ukraine last year as “a watershed in the history of our continent” (“Zeitenwende”), this rhetoric necessitated that the German government finally undertake extensive efforts to diversify the country’s energy partnerships. As part of this endeavor, Germany turned to the Gulf: Already in March, Germany’s Economics and Climate Action Minister Robert Habeck traveled to the UAE and Qatar in order to enhance bilateral energy cooperation. This was followed, in May, by visits to Berlin of Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and the then-UAE minister of industry and advanced technology, Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, to discuss enhanced hydrogen cooperation. In September, Scholz’ first trip to Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha also focused on energy security and economic cooperation.

Focus on hydrogen

As part of its energy transformation goal (“Energiewende”), Germany seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 65% by 2030, to increase the share of renewables in electricity production to 80%, and reach “climate neutrality” by 2045. Within this broader agenda, hydrogen is to become a key pillar of Germany’s energy mix. Already in June 2020, the former German government launched the National Hydrogen Strategy, which provides a framework for energy production based on hydrogen and for ensuring the necessary imports. Against this backdrop, the German government considers the Gulf monarchies to be reliable and relevant partners in preserving current energy needs and further promoting the hydrogen sector in the future. The Gulf monarchies aim to establish themselves as regional hubs for hydrogen production and are thus interested in cooperation with major consumers such as Germany. For instance, Berlin and Riyadh signed the German-Saudi Energy Dialogue in March 2021 in order to promote bilateral cooperation in the production and transportation of hydrogen; and in February 2022, Germany opened a “hydrogen diplomacy office” in the Saudi capital. With the UAE, an energy partnership agreement was already signed in 2017.

Despite enhanced energy cooperation, Germany’s overall relationships with the Gulf have remained limited and tactical so far as Berlin largely considers the latter countries “frenemies”: None of the German governments to date have engaged comprehensively with Gulf monarchies on a strategic level, which has in turn contributed to a lack of public knowledge and political awareness regarding the Gulf region. So far, partnerships with Gulf monarchies were mainly transactional and driven by economic or energy interests. Missing is a comprehensive agenda regarding joint security or political cooperation.

Public backlash and political constraints

Issues such as human rights violations, insufficient labor migrants’ rights in the case of Qatar (in light of the 2022 World Cup soccer tournament), Gulf states’ engagement in military conflicts (such as in Yemen), or the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 have become hot topics in German public discourse. In light of this, the perceptions of growing reliance on hydrogen supplies from authoritarian Gulf monarchies have caused growing concern in German media. Such contested issues have constrained the space for closer dialogue on any issues beyond energy.

In general, the critical public discourse on German-Gulf relations creates a dilemma for political decisionmakers and has widened the gap between Germany and the Gulf. This became especially obvious during the World Cup: Ethical criticism in the German media of the host led to a counter-reaction from Qatar and other Gulf monarchies, accusing Germany of hypocrisy, double standards, and ignorance. After Germany’s Interior Minister Nancy Faeser criticized Qatar for its human rights record, the German ambassador to Doha was summoned for an explanation and the Qatari government completely rejected those remarks. Days before the World Cup started, Qatar’s emir characterized European criticism as an “unprecedented campaign.” In the long run, such polarization and division could undermine cooperation between the Gulf monarchies and Germany, as was expressed by the German ambassador to Qatar in December 2022. Since Berlin labels human rights as the “most important protective shield of individual dignity,” cooperation with the authoritarian Gulf monarchies will remain complex. The “problematic partnership” with the Gulf monarchies features prominently in the controversial debate about the provision of military equipment to some Gulf monarchies: In 2022, Germany’s total global arms exports were valued at €8.4 billion, of which €50.2 million worth of weapons sales went to Qatar and €16.7 million to Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that Germany banned weapons exports to countries involved in the Yemen war (such as Saudi Arabia) since 2018. The same self-restriction was included in the current coalition agreement of the German government. In addition, after Sholtz visited Riyadh, Berlin approved a further supply of military equipment to the Saudi kingdom, valued at €36 million, as part of the joint European Eurofighter and Tornado project. Such actions give the impression that the German government is acting inconsistently and against its normative values.

The Gulf region: Relevant for German interests

Despite such controversies, the Gulf region is, in fact, vital for the German export-driven economy, which heavily relies on secure trade routes and supply chains. Hence, the security of sea lanes around the Arabian Peninsula remains a key interest for Berlin’s political decision-making. This interest will only deepen going forward in light of the deals Germany has entered into with specific Gulf monarchies to ship LNG to German coastal terminals. Against this backdrop, Berlin’s current tactical approach toward the Gulf will need to be expanded beyond energy to also encompass a clear security dimension.

Since the devastating war on Ukraine began, Germany started to undergo a strategic transformation in terms of security and foreign policymaking, in which the Gulf monarchies should be included. Notably, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have emerged as relevant global players in a multipolar world: Since the “Arab Uprisings” in 2011, the “Gulf moment” shifted power from traditional Arab gravity centers such as Egypt or Syria to the Gulf. Today, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha are projecting regional power through economic and political interventions and have stepped onto the global stage as influential veto-players in a multipolar world. From a German perspective, a coherent Gulf policy would take such a dynamic geopolitical shift into consideration by defining mutual security and political interests beyond just energy. But it must begin with less controversial and more easily achievable areas of cooperation.

Closer cooperation in the fields of development assistance and cultural diplomacy

The “Zeitenwende” should push Germany’s political elites toward a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Gulf monarchies as problematic but necessary partners that are relevant in terms of security as well as regional social and economic transformation. Such a strategy could become an integral part of Germany’s foreign policymaking, as the Federal Foreign Office is currently drafting the first National Security Strategy in modern German history. Beyond energy and trade, the relationship could focus on other policy fields, such as development assistance and cultural diplomacy. In both areas, Germany enjoys international respect and can offer efficient and professional instruments to balance value-oriented foreign policy-making and interest-driven pragmatism.

As the second-largest global provider of official development assistance (ODA) in 2020, Germany could engage more with the Gulf monarchies in this area in particular by promoting collaboration in technical assistance. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait have each emerged as leading providers of foreign aid in recent decades: Between 1973 and 2008, they provided on average 1.5% of their gross national income (GNI) as ODA, significantly exceeding the target set by the United Nations of 0.7% of GNI. In 2020, Qatar delivered $591.5 million in ODA, followed by Kuwait with $388 million; whereas, Saudi Arabia spent $2.1 billion and the UAE $1.5 billion on ODA in 2021. In recent years, both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates were ranked among the largest global development cooperation providers.

So far, though, the potential for enhanced coordination with Germany remained untapped: Berlin was reluctant to engage more with Gulf development organizations due to the perceived reputational risks such an initiative could bring. In general, Germany champions issues such as good governance or democratization, which inherently clash with some of the Gulf monarchies’ efforts to preserve their autocratic systems or project power regionally. Yet Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar have become members of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD-DAC) in order to enhance multilateral cooperation through the Arab-DAC Dialogue on Development and improve ODA data collection. Such actions offer options for partnership with Germany in sectors of mutual interests such as education, women and youth empowerment, health diplomacy, climate action, migration management, or knowledge transfer.

The joint UAE-German declaration signed in June 2019 pointedly mentions humanitarian aid as a promising field of bilateral action. Moreover, the German Development Cooperation Agency GIZ signed a memorandum of understanding with the Islamic Development Bank in 2017 and is further interested in promoting triangular cooperation with Arab multilateral organizations. Building a pandemic-resilient healthcare architecture, pushing back poverty and hunger, or empowering women in Africa and Asia are all principles of Germany’s developmental approach and oftentimes already align with the ongoing shift in Gulf aid — from financial support toward more technical assistance.

In order to build up this kind of cooperation, Germany could intensify its cultural diplomacy in the Gulf region by expanding people-to-people networks through academic, media, or cultural exchange formats, as well as entrepreneurship and inter-regional cross-border dialogue platforms involving German and regional institutions. In this regard, topics such as youth and women’s empowerment, community sports, and social transformation could be addressed in order to dispel mutual stereotypes.

Next steps

With the Gulf monarchies following a more balanced and autonomous foreign policy of hedging to position themselves in a multipolar world, Germany has to recalibrate its relations with them beyond energy. However, persistent German public and media backlash against this kind of closer cooperation presents a significant challenge. Furthermore, the European Union traditionally provided a framework for German foreign policymaking. But with the European Parliament involved in a corruption scandal involving suspected Qatari bribery of European lawmakers and others, EU-Gulf relations seem to be on the brink. Therefore, Germany should focus on national efforts to develop a more comprehensive strategy toward the Gulf monarchies driven by a combination of values and interests. It will be up to Berlin to identify suitable instruments such as development cooperation or cultural exchange, and, at the same time, engage in a more nuanced public discussion about the relevance of Gulf monarchies for German strategic interests in a changing global order despite ongoing issues of contention.


Dr. Sebastian Sons works as senior researcher on Gulf monarchies for the German-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO).

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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