Germany has only praise for strategic UAE relations

In an exclusive interview with The National, Ambassador Philipp Ackermann spoke of concerns about Iran's role in the region

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Philipp Ackermann, Deputy Chief of Mission Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Washington D.C. at The National headquarters. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
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A senior German diplomat dispelled perceptions of strained ties between the UAE and Germany and said relations between the two countries were of strategic significance.

In an exclusive interview with The National, Ambassador Philipp Ackermann – Director General for Near and Middle East, Africa and Latin America at the German Foreign Ministry, said: “There is only one Arab country with which we have elevated our relationship to the level of a strategic partnership – and that is the UAE”.

While the UAE represents the largest trading partner for Germany in the Middle East, with more than 900 German companies operating here, Mr Ackermann was keen to highlight that the “partnership is not only about business. It is about sustainability, renewables, tolerance and much, much more”.

Mr Ackermann, who on Thursday evening completed a two-day visit to the UAE, has had a long history of working with Abu Dhabi, including collaborating on development projects in Afghanistan. “We have been working with the UAE for a long time”, he said, referring to his personal experience of rebuilding a school in Kunduz, Afghanistan that taught English, computer skills and was built on “de-radicalisation” principles in partnership with the UAE.

“When we renovated this madrassa, we realised what a role model the UAE was in this part of the world.”

Yet there have been concerns that Berlin has not always been a reliable partner in terms of the war in Yemen. Germany recently banned weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which leads the coalition in Yemen fighting to restore the government of Abdrabu Mansur Hadi, after the coup led by the Houthis.

Mr Ackermann responded to the concerns by saying: “It is a serious misperception to see Germany sided with the Houthis. Both Germany and the UAE feel that UN Security Council Resolution 2216 is our guiding principle and that includes, and this is very important, that we consider President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi and his government as the only and legitimate government of Yemen.

However, Mr Ackermann emphasised that there needs to be an increase in efforts for a political solution, a position shared with the UAE.

“Our clear political focus is to support UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and his efforts to find a solution. A military solution is leading nowhere,” he said.

Despite Mr Griffiths’ efforts  to start a political process in Yemen, the Houthis have stalled the implementation of what was agreed last December in Stockholm talks. Mr Ackermann said “the Houthis are party to [Stockholm], everyone agrees that one must also speak to the Houthis, we have to see them sitting at the table, being part of a political solution”. And yet the Houthis have refused to adhere to the agreement reached last year.

“It is crucial to implement Stockholm now. The coalition has shown quite an impressive amount of willingness, which is not so much true for the Houthis.”

The toll of the humanitarian crisis is of grave concern. Mr Ackermann said. “It is an unacceptable humanitarian crisis and people are suffering.

“We are very very unhappy with what is currently happening in Yemen. I think everybody is, including the UAE.”

Germany has had decades of involvement in Yemen, mainly in development. Mr Ackermann said “the enormous amount of humanitarian aid by the UAE to the people suffering in Yemen is impressive”.

Meanwhile, Iran has been a principal supporter of the Houthis in Yemen, supplying them with arms and training, which has further drawn out the war.

“Together with our European partners, we make no secret of our position that this is of serious concern,” Mr Ackermann said. “But we have to do that through dialogue and interaction.”

The German concerns about Iran’s behaviour is not limited to Yemen. Germany maintains diplomatic relations with Iran and has an embassy in Tehran, as do many other countries. However, Ackermann said, “there is no secret that we consider Iran a difficult partner”, particularly because of its actions in the region.

Berlin has also been one of the main supporters of the nuclear deal with Iran, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which US President Donald Trump walked away from. Mr Ackermann said that the two positions should not be confused. “Together with our European allies we are convinced that the JCPOA is a good deal and that we must honour that deal as long as Iran does. But that does in no way mean we are not gravely concerned about the Iranian missile programme and Iran’s regional role. I mention Yemen, but also Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to a certain extent. This is something we believe we must exchange on with Iran and make clear how serious our concerns are.”

While Germany relays its concerns to Iran diplomatically, it has taken the unconventional step of banning weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Domestic politics have contributed significantly to this ban, in addition to a nation-wide aversion to being involved in war. “Against the German history, the unparalleled human catastrophe of the Second World War, war is and will remain an extremely sensitive issue for us – for reasons you all understand,” Mr Ackermann said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently commented that there will need to be a compromise on the ban because it affects some European arms sales, which has angered London and Paris. Mr Ackermann said: “The question of exporting arms is always a huge debate in Germany. When it comes to exporting weapons, the coalition treaty of the German government reflects that cautious attitude. It is about supplying arms into violent conflicts in general. It is not a singling-out policy.

“We have a very restrictive arms policy as a whole, for example, we now do not export any small arms outside of Nato countries and Nato-like countries,” he said.

German officials are aware of the concerns about Berlin’s position but insist that they are supportive of the UAE. Mr Ackermann concurred. “This is not an easy situation,” he said. “but I am very confident that the strategic partnership with the UAE will come to new flourishing heights very soon.

“The UAE leadership has recently named Minister of State Dr Sultan Al Jaber as his special envoy and he has been in Germany twice already.” He said that Dr Al Jaber “has been received warmly and had very in-depth talks. We will work together intensively to formulate ways to further enhance our strategic partnership”.