Berlin was last week the theater for events promoting deeper engagement between Germany and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The events were organized by official groups such as the Federal Academy for Security Cooperation and private organizations like the German-Arab Friendship Society. In another sign of renewed interest in the GCC region, chambers of commerce were also active, as well as Germany’s three major foundations (Bertelsmann, Konrad Adenauer, Berghof), which participated fully in the happenings.
The return to active GCC-Germany engagement is in part a result of the energetic efforts of GCC embassies in Berlin and Germany’s diplomatic missions in the region. They have been trying to reverse recent trends of estrangement between the two sides as a result of their diverging views on regional issues, human rights, the war in Yemen, and the nuclear deal with Iran. Declining trade over four years may be another sign, with German exports to the GCC declining from around $32 billion in 2014 to $23 billion in 2018.
While diplomats deserve credit for the active return of GCC-German dialogue, there are also several political and economic factors that underpin the change. First, Germany has been disillusioned by Iran’s policies in the region. There was hope that signing the nuclear deal in 2015 and the accompanying rise in the country’s international standing would lead Iran to change its posture and become more compliant with international norms. However, the opposite has taken place. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has interpreted the deal as a license to increase its destabilizing activities in the region. The financial windfall was used in part to fund IRGC activities and those of its proxies. Iran’s brazen behavior was epitomized by threats to close the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab Strait and impede its neighbors’ oil exports. Those threats were followed by attacks on oil tankers and increased missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations. Germany has been critical of the reimposed US sanctions, but did not agree with Iran on how to resist them.
The recent visit by Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Iran found that Tehran was not in a mood to climb down from its confrontational position. Iran’s breach of the nuclear deal’s limitations has alarmed Germany, its foremost champion within the EU. Now that those breaches have been confirmed, there are likely to be serious consequences.