NEW YORK ― It has been a half a century since German tanks created a stir in the Middle East.
In the 1940s, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s AfrikaKorps didn’t get anywhere near the Arabian oil fields Hitler coveted dearly. Now Chancellor Angela Merkel has sent German tanks to the desert again, this time to be manned by Saudis.
The German government recently approved a sale of 200 Leopard II main battle tanks to the government of Saudi Arabia in a deal that has raised eyebrows ― and old ghosts ― around the world.
Many in Germany and elsewhere are denouncing the deal, coming as it does on the heels of the Saudi-led armored intervention that squelched pro-democracy unrest in neighboring Bahrain in February. Human rights groups have cited the danger that the 68-ton behemoth would be used against protesters. The imagery, certainly, is unfortunate: If Saudi tanks helped intimidate pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, could they not do the same at home?
Weighing the morality of tank sales is dangerous business, of course, and the sale of the German tank ― regarded by many as the world’s premier land warfare weapon — to an Arab state that has not technically recognized Israel’s right to exist provokes particular concern.
But the details of the $2.5 billion sale and the carefully calibrated reactions of regional players suggest that The Kingdom has something other than domestic stability on its royal mind.
The tank sold by Germany, technically the Kampfpanzer Leopard 2A7+, is the latest version of a tank that first appeared in West German units in 1979. They’ve been sold abroad before ― mostly among NATO nations, including Spain, Canada and the Netherlands, but also to the armies of Chile and Singapore.
Intimidating even while stationary, these tanks are far from ideal weapons in a standoff with protesters. Indeed, the tanks the Saudis sent to Bahrain were a mix of small French models and armored cars, not the giant U.S.-made Abrams M1A2 tanks that make up most of their arsenal. Leopard IIs and Abrams tanks are designed to destroy cities by driving right over them. Indeed, just one of them would have collapsed the causeway that links Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Preventing the undue spread of such weapons can be considered an absolute good. But the Saudis, repressive and anti-democratic as they are, have legitimate cause for concern about the threat posed by Iran’s large and experienced tank corps. Iran, tellingly, has denounced the German sale as “cynical.”
With the United States rapidly drawing down from Iraq, itself a traditional concern of the Saudi royals, rivalry with Iran has heightened. While Saudi claims that Iran engineered Bahrain’s pro-democracy unrest appear exaggerated, it is true that Iran has tried to capitalize on the fact that most of those killed in the repression that followed were Bahraini Shiites demanding democratic reforms from a minority Sunni monarchy.
Saudi Arabia is no local wimp, of course, having purchased the best weapons available in quantity over the years. But the last time Saudi Arabia made a major purchase of tanks was 1990, when it paid $3.1 billion for 315 M1A2 Abrams built by General Dynamics in Lima, Ohio. It was viewed at the time as a “thank you” for saving them from Saddam Hussein.
But 1990 was a long time ago, and the Saudi desert is very, very hard on mechanized vehicles. The Saudis spent $2.6 billion upgrading them in 2006. But Iran's tank corps, while made up of inferior Russian models, is nearly twice the size of Saudi Arabia’s.
Lost in the focus on the potential repressive uses of these tanks domestically is the message the German deal sends to the United States.
Since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” earlier this year, ties with Washington — already strained in the wake of 9/11 and all that followed — grew very cold. The Saudis are furious with the United States for throwing Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak under the bus last winter, as they see it, and worried that the 11th-hour conversion Obama made could easily be repeated if things got rough in Jeddah or Riyadh.
While the Obama administration has refrained from cheering on dissent close to the Kingdom’s borders, its actions in Libya, Tunisia and especially Egypt have Saudi Arabia’s rulers questioning their dependency on U.S. power, including U.S. weaponry.
Just last year in a little-noticed move, the Saudis ordered 150 Russian tanks. The Leopard II deal with Germany sends a sharp signal to America that a major arms customer has other options. The M1A2 Abrams is for all intents and purposes the equal of the German tank, but Saudi Arabia chose not to give its business to General Dynamics, which builds the tank.
Given the new mood in Riyadh, could a major purchase of Eurofighters or MiG-33s be next? McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed must be concerned at the prospect of their most lucrative client looking around for new suppliers.
In the past, such major weapons sales to any Arab state would have prompted objections from the Israelis. In the early 1980s, Israel fought hard but lost an effort to prevent the Reagan administration from selling the U.S.-built AWACS early warning planes to the Saudis, and subsequently complained whenever F-16s went to Arab countries, too.
But the Arab Spring has changed this Israeli calculus. The prospect of a nuclear Iran ― which, even without a tank-led invasion, could potentially cow Saudi Arabia into doing its bidding at OPEC and elsewhere ― has led Israel to remain silent on the tank deal.
Even before the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia appeared to be the most likely behind-the-scenes interlocutor for Israel in any future peace talks. As guardians of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, and with enormous wealth to dole out in compensation for compromises, the Saudis appeared like an island of stability even if their fundamentalist brand of Islam often bred the worst forms of terrorism.
Since the Arab Spring put Egypt back into play, however, Israel has been even more concerned that Saudi Arabia remains a stabilizing force, countering both Iranian influence and any slippage by Arab states dependent on Saudi aid back toward a pre-1979 “confrontation” stance.
Israel has remained relatively quiet about the Arab Spring, and that policy has now been applied to German tanks, too. German reports suggest the government got Israel’s approval before going ahead with the deal ― quite plausible given the sensitivities in Berlin about such things.
“It is in the nature of such matters that one does not speak about them publicly,” Israel’s deputy defense minister, Danny Ayalon, told Die Zeit over the weekend. “But I can assure you that we fully and completely trust Germany’s government.”