A trip that highlights Germany's rising regional interests

Daily News Egypt
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The visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the Middle East, which began on Saturday, comes at an opportune moment. Germany currently holds both the presidency of the European Union and that of the Group of Eight industrialized countries. Since December 2006, Merkel has held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On her return from a recent visit to the Middle East, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped in Berlin for talks. Germany’s foreign minister has visited the region no less than five times since the war in Lebanon last year. All this indicates increased German engagement in the Middle East, amid growing awareness that such involvement is part of a broader European security strategy. Demonstrating that results are achievable, the Quartet met for the first time in four years in Washington on February 2. Germany continues to have strong economic interests in the region. With the Gulf Cooperation Council states offering tremendous potential for business and investment, Germany’s volume of trade with the region has gone over the $17 billion mark, doubling since 2000. Merkel is being accompanied by a high-level economic delegation headed by Economics Minister Michael Glos. At the same time, Germany’s broader commitment on the ground in the Middle East has steadily grown in recent years and represents the main aspect of the country’s current political engagement. In Afghanistan, 2,900 German troops have been part of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) since 2003. Germany heads two Isaf Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Kunduz and Feyzabad and provides the Regional Commander (North), based in Mazar-e-Sharif. Last January 30, Germany also hosted the Joint Coordination and Monitoring Board meeting for Afghan reconstruction in Berlin. As part of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, German naval vessels are deployed off Lebanon’s coast, and last October Germany took command of the Maritime Task Force securing the Lebanese coastline. In total, 2,400 naval personnel are committed. Furthermore, at the Lebanese reconstruction conference held in Paris on January 25, Germany raised its pledges for 2006 and 2007 by $39 million to a total of $134 million, as part of an overall European Union commitment of $650 million. Germany’s regional engagement has to be welcomed, in particular because it also includes the greater involvement of the EU. In the past few years, there has been recognition that events in the Gulf – Iraq and its broader implications; Iran and its dangerous nuclear program; terrorism and the need to find a common front; and energy security, where the Gulf plays a pivotal role – are having an impact beyond the Middle East. Merkel’s visit contains another important rationale too. The Gulf currently finds itself caught in a volatile security situation. This is due to the possibility that another crisis may break out between the United States and Iran, at a time when the conflict in Iraq shows no signs of dying down. Unless immediate action is taken, the overall environment will lead to a further increase in intolerance and extremism. The challenges that the Gulf confronts cannot be solved through military means; they require political solutions. In this situation, Germany and the EU are not only accepted partners, they are necessary ones. What roles can Germany and the EU play? First, they must improve their public diplomacy in a region where most people remain uninformed about the EU’s policies and intentions. As far as the GCC states are concerned, Germany brings to the table what the Gulf today is looking for and requires: an emphasis on multilateralism through the EU and Nato; a focus on long-term stability; and an ability to maintain open lines of communication with all the regional actors. Germany and the EU are capable of promoting dialogue, bridging communication gaps, and encouraging confidence-building, all essential elements for the foundation of a stable Gulf security architecture in the near future. Germany and the GCC states also agree on the broad outlines of major regional and international issues – from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Germany and the EU can, further, promote a greater degree of convergence and cooperation between the GCC and the EU as institutions. But all this needs to be communicated to the Gulf public at large, to create momentum that translates into effective action. Second, the EU needs to act as a conduit to key actors in the region. The first is the US, whose policies have been catastrophic for Gulf stability. By injecting its voice into the policy debate, Europe can offer a moderating complement to US policy that will limit Washington’s unilateralism. Without a competent voice of its own, Germany – with Europe alongside – will have to deal with the consequences of failed American policy. The same must be said to Iran, which must comprehend the dangerous impact its policies are having on the region. Iran should stop living under the illusion that the American setbacks in Iraq automatically open the door for Tehran to uninhibitedly spread its hegemony throughout the Middle East. They do not. Europe should increase the pressure on Iran to come to the negotiating table on its nuclear policy by re-emphasizing that the June 2006 EU-3 proposal remains alive. There are still plenty of options to avoid a military scenario. In this context, Germany and the EU can offer what nobody else has been able to so far – a long-term strategic vision around which all sides might orient themselves. Third, the EU should support GCC initiatives that might impact positively on the broader region. This includes the Saudi-inspired Counter-Terrorism Center to be established in Manama, Bahrain; the proposal for a weapons of mass destruction-free zone for the Gulf, as a precursor for the Middle East; and support for the 2002 Arab League plan proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Merkel’s trip is a unique opportunity for Germany to promote a European alternative and develop a common European policy that will help the Middle East begin the process of overcoming its mutual antagonisms. Christian Koch is the director of international studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the center.

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