The Israel-Hamas war has reignited a debate at the top of Germany’s coalition government whether to lift its ban on a multibillion-euro sale of Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.
Berlin has exercised a veto on the export of the jets since 2018, when it banned Riyadh from importing the aircraft over its role in the war in Yemen and the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Typhoons are built by a pan-European consortium in the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. Each country can veto exports of the planes to other nations. The UK, which has historic defence ties to Riyadh and has sold 72 jets to the kingdom, has been trying to secure a follow-on order for several years.
The dramatic change in the security situation in the Middle East, pressure from European allies and a change in perception about the role played by Saudi Arabia in ensuring regional stability, has begun to tilt the balance of thinking in Berlin, according to people familiar with the discussions at four different ministries in the German capital.
No decision has been taken and it will be contingent on a number of unpredictable — and shifting — political factors.
At the behest of the Green party, the ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia is a part of the coalition agreement that underpins the government of chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Greens remain staunchly opposed to lifting the ban.
A decision would have to be agreed by the German federal security council — a body on which the Greens hold two of seven seats. Its decision making rules are a state secret.
The debate is not new. More hawkish figures in Scholz’s cabinet have long pushed for the veto to be dropped. Until now the political calculus behind such a revision has been unfavourable. As recently as July, Scholz ruled out any possibility of Typhoon sales to Riyadh.
But Germany’s defence minister, Boris Pistorius, as well as Scholz are increasingly supportive of a change in policy over military sales to Saudi Arabia. So are ministers from the liberal Free Democrats, the third coalition party. They all want to seize the opportunity presented by the Middle East conflict to reopen the discussion on the ban.
Spokespeople for the German defence and economy ministries declined to comment on the export of military technology, and said the decision making process was secret.
“If a decision is made, parliament will be informed relatively quickly,” said government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit — who stressed he had no comment to make on whether any discussions were taking place. “This is a very formal procedure.”
The central issue, said one person familiar with the matter, was whether the argument could be made that Saudi Arabia is now playing a stabilising role in the Middle East. Events had shifted dramatically in the past five years, they said.
Berlin’s change of tack could prove diplomatically awkward: Turkey, a Nato ally, has also asked to buy 40 Typhoons, and Germany has refused. Making the case that Riyadh is a more sound regional partner than Ankara and deserving of a big arms deal risks aggravating tense relations with Turkey.
In a sign of the mounting external pressure on Berlin, Britain this month resubmitted an earlier offer to sell 48 new Typhoon aircraft to Saudi, three people familiar with the situation confirmed.
The offer includes details of what support and training would be provided by the UK and its main defence group BAE Systems over the lifespan of the jets. A promise to eventually manufacture the aircraft in the kingdom is also included, the people said.
For Britain, resolving the impasse over the potential sale of jets has become an urgent priority. British sources briefed on the situation said that the UK was taking seriously the idea that Saudi Arabia — which is looking to replace is ageing Tornado fleet — might pursue a rival offer from Dassault to offer its Rafale jets, or even another option. “It’s a competitive bid process,” said one UK official.
“We are not complacent about it. The big risk for the UK is if we treat the French offer merely as a stalking horse,” said a second person.
Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, raised the issue with Scholz during the summer, extracting a commitment to explore a way forward, according to two people.
Other members of the Eurofighter consortium, notably Airbus, have in recent weeks raised alarm about the German stance.
Guillaume Faury, chief executive of the pan-European aerospace and defence group, said this month that Berlin’s stance was not only “damaging for the Eurofighter but also damaging for the reputation of Germany as an export country to its partners”.
A UK government spokesperson said they were working closely with the German government: “Last year, we welcomed Germany’s decision to extend export licences for parts for Saudi Arabia’s existing Eurofighter aircraft for three years. The UK remains steadfast in its commitment to our strategic defence relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”