German opposition parties up in arms over Saudi tank sale

5th July 2011, Comments 0 comments

German opposition parties and even some members of the ruling parties were up in arms Tuesday over reports that the government wants to overturn its export rules and sell hundreds of tanks to Saudi Arabia.

This followed press reports that Saudi Arabia is about to buy 200 Leopard-2s, Germany main battle tank which is also produced under licence in Spain.

Germany has declined for over 20 years to sell such heavy weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concerns over human rights and fear for Israel's security.

To date, the government has refused to confirm the reports, saying such matters are discussed confidentially within the federal security council which determines export guidelines.

"The federal security council meets secretly. Therefore we can comment neither about its deliberations, nor about its decisions," foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke has told reporters.

But opposition leaders have demanded a parliamentary debate on the matter.

"The government must explain itself at some stage," Green parliamentary leader Juergen Trittin told ARD television Tuesday.

"Such decisions cannot be taken at a time when people are fighting for democracy in the Arab world," he added.

"And now one's trying to say such heavy weapons can simply be sold to dictators -- and that is the case in Saudi Arabia," he added.

"The government's readiness to sell 200 modern German tanks at a time of tension in the near East and the Arab peninsula denotes a frightening lack of judgment," the social-democrat parliamentary deputy leader Gernot Erler told the Welt newspaper's online service.

Such a policy demonstrates that Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westewelle "only pay lip service to supporting democratic movements in the Arab world," he added.

Selling tanks to Saudi Arabia at a time when that country has sent armoured vehicles to help put down a peaceful protest movement in neighbouring Bahrain is "a slap in the face for freedom movements in the whole region," Erler added.

The tiny but strategic Gulf archipelago, joined by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, has experienced repeated bouts of unrest between its Shiite majority population and its Saudi-backed Sunni ruling family.

Even in Merkel's government ranks, news of the possible deal has ruffled feathers.

Ruprecht Polenz, a Christian-Democrat who heads parliament's foreign affairs commission, suggested such a sale would go against all previous rules about exporting weapons to countries in turmoil, and even the parliament's Christian-Democrat president, Norbert Lammert, expressed concern about the timing of such a deal given the crackdown in Bahrain, newspapers reported.

The Saudi order for Leopard-2A7+ -- a 55 to 62-tonne tank equipped with a 120 mm gun -- could be worth billions of euros to the companies Kraus-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall, Der Spiegel magazine reported.

The Saudi kingdom has been in talks with the Spanish subsidiary of General Dynamics about buying their version of the Leopard tank, but the major portion of the order would land with the Germans, the magazine suggested.

The Saudis are also in talks with US companies for 60 billion dollars worth (41 billion euros) of defence equipment that would become the largest US contract ever.

Die Welt newspaper, in an editorial, defended the government's bid to sell the tanks saying Saudi Arabia needed to be able to defend itself against Iran.

With Iran threatening to acquire nuclear weapons "the only way to avoid a nuclear arms race (in the region) is to help the Saudis develop a strong conventional deterrence," it said.

© 2011 AFP

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