Potential partners - and what connects us to them

The Middle East and North Africa

Developments in the Middle East and North Africa always have an impact on Europe. The two regions are not only inextricably linked by geography, but also by historic and diverse cultural and social interrelations. The migration crisis in 2015 was a good example of how destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa can have significant consequences for Germany and the European Union.

Status quo

Developments in the Middle East and North Africa always have an impact on Europe. The two regions are not only inextricably linked by geography, but also by historic and diverse cultural and social interrelations. The migration crisis in 2015 was a good example of how destabilisation of the Middle East and North Africa can have significant consequences for Germany and the European Union. The attacks by Islamist terrorist organisations operating on both sides of the Mediterranean also highlight the interdependence of security policy. Germany and Europe therefore have a primary interest in stability and peaceful development in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Middle East and North Africa are among the world’s most conflict-ridden regions, where internal unrest, inter-state disputes and regional conflicts influence or even exacerbate each other. Violent civil wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen have developed into endless proxy wars in the wake of growing rivalries between regional and major powers. They have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions. Around 40 percent of refugees and displaced persons in the world today come from the Arab world. Most have found shelter in neighbouring countries. Turkey has now become the world’s largest host country for refugees. Per capita, Jordan and Lebanon, where every fourth inhabitant is a refugee, bear an even greater burden. Against this background, refugees and migration remain core challenges not only for Europe, but especially for the host societies in the region, where difficult socioeconomic conditions already prevail.

The region is characterised by fragile statehood, political insecurity and social and economic problems. The extensive socioeconomic crisis that was at the root of the Arab Spring has remained largely unresolved and continues to put governments under pressure. The long-held perception of a region characterised by “authoritarian stability” has proven to be misleading. What has emerged instead is a fundamental crisis of governance, growing dissatisfaction and frustration among the various social classes due to an increasingly depressed economic situation. The recent waves of protest in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Iraq, where young people, for the most part, tried to translate their demands collectively into political pressure, must be understood as the most important domestic political factor in the countries of the region and one which will be crucial for the coming years. The coronavirus pandemic, which reached the region in March 2020, added fuel to the fire of existing crises, both economic and political. Mistrust between government and society threatens to deepen as the “securitisation” of state policy and the influence of the security apparatus continues to increase.

It is not just on the domestic front that the region is facing turbulent times. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has been one of the “frozen”, permanent crises in the region, could soon take a dramatic turn, as the prospect of a two-state solution becomes increasingly remote. Israel’s further rapprochement with some Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, contributes to Israel’s security and the involved parties are likely to profit from more cooperation, also in the technological and economic realm. But the “normalization” through the recent bilateral agreements could also increase other geopolitical tensions in the region and did not, until now, bring a new dynamic into solving the Palestinian question.

Meanwhile, new confrontations between countries and groups of countries competing for regional supremacy are being superimposed on existing structural conflicts. The antagonism between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or the power rivalry between Turkey and Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates on the other, are an expression of a regional reorganisation that goes hand in hand with large-scale militarisation. Although the Middle East and North Africa make up less than 6 percent of the world’s population and contribute less than 5 percent to GDP, the region accounts for almost a third of the world’s arms imports. The USA’s departure from a moderating leadership role, Russia’s hegemonic claims, and growing Chinese involvement give rise to the threat that not only will the region become the scene of regional rivalries, but it will also develop into a stage for global confrontations.

Germany’s Middle East and North Africa policy is embedded in European policy and has to reconcile the conflicting demands of acting in the interests of European partners and the USA, of historical responsibility towards Israel, and of the expectations of the Arab states. This approach documents the priority given in German foreign policy to concepts grounded in rules-based multilateral solutions and the desire to strengthen the EU’s foreign policy profile. In the course of the growing foreign and security policy challenges related directly to the region, Germany’s interests have, at the same time, become more differentiated. In particular, Germany’s interest in the region in terms of security and migration policy has increased significantly in recent years. However, there are also new economic opportunities.

Germany’s bilateral relations with the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are primarily characterised by technological, economic and development cooperation. Political attention and commitment to the region first increased with the political unrest in 2011 and then much more so with the migration crisis of 2015. Since then, the willingness in Germany to play a more prominent role on the international stage and in the region has steadily increased.

Implementing the values orientation of German foreign policy in a region still dominated by mainly authoritarian regimes poses a particular challenge. For historical reasons, but also because of a common democratic bedrock of values, Israel is traditionally Germany’s closest partner in the region. This applies to cultural and social connections as well as to cooperation in the areas of foreign, economic and security policy. Tunisia is the first Arab country to show that democratic transformation is possible. Germany has considerably increased its commitment in Tunisia since 2011 and has since provided the small North African country with around one billion euros in loans and aid. Today, Tunisia is Germany’s “flagship partner” in the Arab world.

Apart from Israel, with whom cooperation in the field of military technology has further increased in recent years, and NATO member Turkey, development of comprehensive security policy partnerships in the region is proving difficult. On the one hand, the situation is characterised by “weak” states struggling with internal upheavals and therefore not in a position to shape policy in the region, and on the other hand, polarisation has increased within the region, with authoritarian regimes vying for influence over proxy conflicts. Nonetheless, it has been possible to station several hundred German soldiers in Iraq and Jordan, who are contributing to the fight against the Islamic State via training and reconnaissance missions.

Overall, German security policy engagement demonstrates a degree of restraint. Germany wants to avoid initiatives that could be interpreted as “going it alone”. However, alliances and partnerships in the EU and NATO have become fragile. The EU is paralysed by the conflicting interests of its Member States and has lost influence in terms of security and foreign policy. The Iran deal of 2015, hailed as the EU’s greatest diplomatic success, is now a thing of the past. Europe’s involvement in the Syrian war was barely relevant, and the Libyan conflict has dramatically revealed the EU’s inability to overcome conflicts of interest between its Member States and to assume a mediating role in resolving a conflict in its immediate neighbourhood. The German government launched an important foreign policy initiative in 2019 in the form of the Berlin Process, which is intended to compel external warring factions to gradually reach a political solution. From the outset, the German government has attached great importance to integrating the initiative into the European framework and to placing it under the aegis of the UN. Even if the chances of success are still uncertain, the initiative has strengthened Germany’s reputation as a fair and reliable mediator, thus increasing its influence in terms of foreign policy.

In economic terms, the region has so far been of minor importance for Germany. Among German’s 30 most important trading partners, there is only one country from the region, namely Turkey (in 17th place for 2018). Germany exported goods worth 3.17 billion euros (2018) to Egypt (the most populous Arab country with 100 million inhabitants) – less than half of that to Singapore or Hong Kong. The conflicts and crises in the region, along with the uncertainty associated with transformation processes, are deterring investment, particularly by German SMEs.

Nevertheless, German companies are important employers in Tunisia’s automotive supply and textile industries, for example. German corporations, such as Siemens, were able to secure lucrative contracts for major infrastructure projects in the Gulf States (e.g. for building the underground in Riyadh), and also in Egypt (e.g. for wind turbines). Other resource-poor countries, such as Lebanon, are facing economic and fiscal collapse. The economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis, for example due to the slump in tourism, are further exacerbating this situation. This calls for EU economic and trade policy initiatives that provide sustainable support for the local economies.

The Middle East and North Africa have half of the world’s known oil and gas reserves. Although Germany obtains only very small quantities of these raw materials from the region, their reliable extraction remains important for the global economy and is therefore also in Germany’s interest. In the area of renewable energies, Germany has been particularly active in North Africa, where Morocco has become a pioneer in the generation of solar and wind energy. Environmental and climate protection is a key issue in the entire region, which Germany has so far addressed primarily through development policy measures.

At present, Germany’s main interest in the region is determined primarily by domestic political factors. This particularly applies to the problem of uncontrolled migration. In the last ten years, more than two million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean, more than one million of them in Germany. In 2015, the majority came via Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean route. In the wake of the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, these movements were abruptly reduced, and there was a shift in migration routes to the central and western Mediterranean route via the North African Mediterranean countries. The profile of migrants also changed. Predominantly sub-Saharan Africans are increasingly making their way to Europe (among other places) due to economic problems. However, the number of people arriving in Europe is not particularly high. Due to state fragility (especially in Libya) and the potential for conflict in the region, an easing of tensions is not yet in sight.

In addition, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are facing similar migration policy challenges to those in Europe: pressure on their land and sea borders is increasing, as is the domestic political debate on how to deal with refugees and migrants. Since 2015, Germany and the EU have launched a variety of initiatives, instigated programmes, and concluded migration agreements. In addition to the agreement with Turkey, these include partnerships with the host countries Jordan and Lebanon and the Compact with Africa (including Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco), which stems from a German initiative during its G20 presidency in 2018. Further financing was pledged to the countries via the EU Neighbourhood Instrument (ENI) and the European Investment Bank.

It is fair to say that, in recent years, migration and refugees have become the dominant issues in the cooperation between Germany/EU and their southern neighbours. The volume of development cooperation has increased considerably since 2015 and is now more focused on sustainable economic development, employment, especially for the younger generation, and humanitarian aid. Combating the causes of irregular migration, short-term border protection measures and emergency refugee programmes have become new priorities for German development cooperation in this region.

Demand from the region for Germany to be actively engaged in terms of foreign policy has grown in recent years, while, at the same time, the EU has lost credibility due to the inconsistent positions and contradictory policies of its Member States. In the future, Germany should take on a bigger role in policy-shaping but also continue its previous approach of rules-based multilateral cooperation. In this crisis and conflict-ridden region, there are insufficient forums for dialogue and formats for cooperation to create sustainable structures for peace and security. German foreign policy can devote itself much more than hitherto to the difficult task of offering inter-regional conflict resolution mechanisms, similar to the model of the Berlin Process for Libya. This initiative demonstrates that, in strengthening its international engagement, Germany has the opportunity to gain the active status of a negotiator and security player, in addition to its development policy role.

There are tight constraints on expanding the existing security policy partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa beyond Israel and Turkey. In any case, security policy cooperation with Iraq should be further intensified in order to support the country in the fight against Islamist terror. The same applies to countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia, to whose military strenghtening Germany can contribute in cooperation with its European and international partners. Algeria, which has the appropriate military strength and political capital, could become an important security policy partner for stability in North Africa and the Sahel region.

Despite the escalation of violence and the widespread failure of the protest movements in the Arab Spring of 2011, the way in which the region will develop politically in the long term is still in question. The mass demonstrations of 2019 in several countries have again shown the continued relevance of the demands for the rule of law and for political and socio-economic participation in the societies of the region. If there is to be sustainable stabilisation and development of the region, governance must also be taken into account. If democratic tendencies can prevail, at least in some countries, this would also be an important sign in terms of the global competition between systems of governance. Germany should therefore maintain particularly close relations with countries that are striving for democratic reforms. In addition to a strong focus on Tunisia, countries such as Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq should be encouraged to strengthen the rule of law and participatory structures and be provided with special support in order to do so. In addition to governmental relations, Germany can utilise its diverse range of foreign-policy instruments (such as intermediary organisations, foundations and associations) to further expand contacts with political, civil-society and private-sector players who are committed to a positive and values-based reform agenda in their respective countries.

The Middle East and North Africa are a growing market with more than 400 million people. These oil and gas-based rentier economies require international partners to help modernise and differentiate them, a process that is currently taking place for instance in Saudi Arabia. For German companies, this offers new and often previously unavailable business opportunities, from infrastructure to the health and entertainment industries. There will also be the question of reconstruction in war-torn areas. At any rate, the region should be perceived not only as a sales market for German products but also as a partner in innovation. If conflicts can be de-escalated and suitable political structures established, the combination of a young population, transformation processes and the wealth of resources available in the region can unleash enormous economic potential.

Beyond the question of oil and gas production, environmental and climate policy challenges will determine the long-term stability of the region. The social and economic effects of environmental problems (from water scarcity to inadequate waste disposal) are becoming increasingly apparent. This is where Germany can get involved, supporting countries in the region that are willing to cooperate in the sustainable use of natural resources and expansion of renewable energies – first and foremost Iraq, whose stability is of great importance for the entire Middle East region. However, interest in German expertise, for example in the field of solar energy, is also being expressed by countries such as the Gulf States and Algeria, which are very concerned about their sovereignty. At the same time, environmental and climate policy measures offer the possibility of low-threshold cross-border cooperation, such as has been developed, at least in some small part, between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

The issue of migration remains high on the agenda on both sides of the Mediterranean. Germany should seek levels of cooperation that are also in the primary interest of its southern neighbours, jointly define priorities, and develop projects in consultation. It is important, above all, to avoid initiatives that are unacceptable to these countries. Otherwise, the migration issue could turn into a crisis of confidence and lead to further instability on the edges of Europe. In particular, Germany could increase its support for countries by helping to shape their asylum and migration policies, so that they are not left completely alone with their economic, social and cultural burdens. The political will for this already exists in some countries. Morocco is so far the only country to have initiated a national migration and asylum strategy, which provides for the introduction of a coherent policy based on human rights, and to have signed migration agreements with several African countries. When developing multilateral initiatives to regulate migration, Morocco can act as a bridge between Europe and Africa.

In its bilateral relations with the countries of the region, Germany is obliged to rely on diplomatic initiatives based on its own interests and values, which also take into account the priorities of the partner country. To this end, foreign and development policy should not only focus on the short-term goals of curbing migration and protecting borders but should also take into account sustainable economic and political development in selected partner countries.

Canan Atilgan is head of “The Middle East and North Africa” in the European and International Cooperation Department; Edmund Ratka Edmund Ratka was Desk Officer for the Middle East and North Africa in the European and International Cooperation Department. Since November 2020 he is Resident Representative to Jordan.



as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Secularisation and modernisation have shaped Tunisia’s policies since independence in 1956 and especially under the leadership of then President Habib Bourguiba, and continue to have an impact today. Recent representative surveys show that Tunisians feel that they belong first and foremost to their country, then to Islam, and only to a much lesser extent to the Arab world. A clear majority, especially in comparison to the neighbouring countries of Libya, Morocco, and Algeria, favour the separation of state and religion.


as a partner for safeguarding our prosperity via free trade and innovation

The relevance of Saudi Arabia for Germany’s economic interests results from the country’s fundamental importance for stability and development in the Near and Middle East, the efforts to modernise its economy, and its oil wealth.


as a partner for the security and stability of Europe, its neighbourhood, and others regions of the world

In terms of area, Algeria is the largest country in Africa and a key security player in the Sahel. Algeria works intensively with the countries of the region on security issues. This is undertaken within the framework of the respective bilateral relations as well as via regional mechanisms, such as the Nouakchott Process of the African Union (AU), which supports the security policy cooperation of eleven states in West Africa, the Maghreb, and the Sahel.


as a partner for securing essential natural resources and protecting the climate

Iraq has the world’s fifth largest oil and twelfth largest natural gas reserves. The country is a founding member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, in recent years, has become its second largest producer. The Iraqi government plans to further expand the oil and gas sector in the coming years, thereby increasing production capacities even more.


as a partner for regulating global migration flows

In recent years, Morocco has become an important partner for Germany with respect to migration issues. On the one hand, the Kingdom has assumed a special role within the African Union (AU) and the international community; on the other hand, it is itself one of the countries where migration is taking place in varying ways. In February 2019, Morocco presented a new migration policy for Africa at the AU and focused on the prospect of development through migration. The new policy places particular emphasis on the fact that migration is not a security problem, and that there is, in the first instance, a need to combat the causes of migration and fleeing refugees.