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 powerful 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 powerful 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 claimed 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 key challenges not only for Europe, but especially for the host societies in the region, which are already struggling with difficult socioeconomic conditions.

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 so-called 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 waves of protest mainly in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Sudan and Iraq, that have increasingly flared up since 2019, and through which mostly young people, collectively tried to translate their demands 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 Covid 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 government policy and the influence of the security apparatus continue to increase.

It is not just on the domestic front that the region is facing turbulent times, however. 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.

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 realignment that is quite dynamic. There have been more and more indications recently of a competition between the allies Abu Dhabi and Riad. In addition, traditional Middle East players like Iraq, Jordan and Egypt have tried, since 2020, to coordinate their policies more closely. These geopolitical realignments go 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 global GDP, the region accounts for almost a third of the world’s arms imports. The US’s abandonment of its role as a leader and a broker in the region, Russia’s hegemonic claims, and growing Chinese involvement give rise to the threat that the region will not only become the scene of regional rivalries, but 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 considering the interests of European partners and the US, demonstrating historical responsibility towards Israel, and meeting the expectations of the Arab states. This approach reflects 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, however, have, become more differentiated. In particular, Germany’s interest in the region in terms of security and migration policy has increased significantly in recent years. But 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 intensified following the political unrest in 2011 and then, much more strongly, during 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 that has demonstrated that democratic transformation is possible. Germany has considerably expanded its commitment in Tunisia since 2011 and has since made available more than 1 billion euros in loans and aid to the small North African country.

Apart from Israel, with whom cooperation in the field of military technology has further increased in recent years, and NATO member Turkey, developing comprehensive security policy partnerships in the region is proving difficult. Many states in the region are “weak”, struggling with internal upheavals, and, therefore, cannot bring their weight to bear in the region. Moreover, the region has become more polarised, with authoritarian regimes vying for influence over proxy conflicts. Nonetheless, it was possible to deploy several hundred German soldiers to Iraq and Jordan, who are contributing to the fight against the Islamic State through training and reconnaissance missions.

Generally speaking, German security policy engagement demonstrates a degree of restraint. Germany wants to avoid starting initiatives that could be interpreted as unilateral action. 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, has suffered a severe blow by the unilateral withdrawal of the US. While Europe’s involvement in the Syrian war was barely relevant, the Libyan conflict 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 was designed to commit external parties to the conflict to reaching a political solution in several stages. From the outset, the German government has attached great importance to integrating the initiative into a European framework and to placing it under the aegis of the UN. Despite some setbacks, the Berlin Process has contributed to a rapprochement of the parties to the Libyan conflict and to an indispensable dialogue among the external actors. A follow-up conference at the level of foreign ministers that was also held in Berlin, in June 2021, illustrates that Germany, through this commitment, has boosted its reputation as a reliable and fair mediator, even in the longer term.

In economic terms, the region has so far been of minor importance for Germany. Among Germany’s 30 most important trading partners, only one country is from the region, namely Turkey (ranked 17th in 2020). Germany exported goods worth 4 billion euros (2020) to Egypt (the most populous Arab country with a population of 100 million) – less than to Singapore or Hong Kong, for example. The conflicts and crises in the region, along with the uncertainty associated with transformation processes, are deterring investment, particularly by German SMEs.

Still, 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 fallout of the Covid crisis, such as the slump in tourism, are further exacerbating this situation. This calls for EU economic and trade policy initiatives that would provide sustainable support for the economies of the region.

The Middle East and North Africa have half of the world’s known oil and gas reserves. Although German sourcing of these commodities from the region is very limited, their reliable production 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 programs.

Currently, 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 whom have ended up in Germany. In 2015, the majority came via Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean route. Following the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016, these movements abruptly dropped, and migration routes started to shift to the central and western Mediterranean route via the North African Mediterranean countries. The profile of migrants also changed. More and more people from sub-Saharan Africa started to pack up and leave (heading to Europe, among other destinations), driven out by economic problems. While the number of people arriving in Europe is not particularly high, an easing of the situation is not yet in sight, due to the fragility of many states (especially Libya) and the potential for conflict in the region.

In addition, the countries of the Middle East and North Africa are facing similar migration policy challenges as 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, initiated programs, 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, among others), which is based on a German initiative during its G20 presidency in 2018. Further funding pledges were made 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 its 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 programs have become new priorities for German development cooperation in this region.

Demand from the region for active German engagement in 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 shaping the agenda but also continue its previous approach of rules-based multilateral cooperation. In this crisis and conflict-ridden region, there is a lack of forums for dialogue and formats for cooperation designed to create sustainable structures for peace and security. German foreign policy can get involved much more than before in addressing 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 an active status as a negotiator and security player, in addition to its development policy role.

The existing security policy partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa can only be expanded beyond Israel and Turkey within narrow limits. 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, whose military capabilities can be upgraded by Germany in cooperation with its European and international partners. Algeria, which has the necessary 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, how the region will develop politically in the long term is still an open 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, the issue of governance must always play a role. What’s more, if trends towards democracy prevail, at least in some countries, this would send an important message 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 should be given special support in order to do so. Apart from 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 stakeholders who are committed to a positive and values-based reform agenda in their respective countries.

The Middle East and North Africa constitute a growing market with more than 400 million people. For the modernisation and differentiation of the oil and gas-based rentier economies, currently pursued, for example, by Saudi Arabia, international partners are required. For German companies, this offers new and often previously unavailable business opportunities, ranging from infrastructure to the health and entertainment industries and, potentially, to reconstruction of the areas devastated by war is. At any rate, the region should not only be perceived as a sales market for German products but also as a partner in innovation. If conflicts can be de-escalated and suitable political structures be 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 impact 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 in expanding renewable energies – first and foremost Iraq, whose stability is of great importance for the entire Middle East region. However, even countries that are very anxious to protect their sovereignty, such as the Gulf states and Algeria, are showing an interest in German expertise, for example in solar energy. At the same time, action on environmental and climate policy offers the possibility of low-threshold cross-border cooperation. Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan have developed such cooperation projects, even if only on a small scale.

The issue of migration remains high on the agenda on both sides of the Mediterranean. Germany should seek levels of cooperation that match the primary interest of its southern neighbours, jointly define priorities, and develop coordinated projects . It is important, above all, to avoid launching 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 them design their asylum and migration policies, so that they are not left completely on their own in shouldering their economic, social and cultural burdens. The political will for this already exists in some countries. So far, Morocco is the only country that has initiated a national migration and asylum strategy that provides for the introduction of a coherent policy based on human rights, and the only country that has 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 should rely on diplomatic initiatives that are based on its own interests and values and that also consider 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 Division;
Edmund Ratka was Desk Officer for the Middle East and North Africa and heads currently the KAS Office in Jordan.

Last update: August 27th, 2021



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

As the largest country in Africa in terms of land area, linking the MENA region and the Sahel zone and as an immediate neighbour, Algeria has a natural relevance for Germany and Europe. The army enjoys a high status as an institution and defense spending is stable at 6% of GDP.


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

Germany and Israel maintain a close partnership based on common interests and shared values. The starting point for this special relationship and Germany’s acknowledgement of historical responsibility was the caesura of the Shoa. The way that the two statesmen Konrad Adenauer and David Ben-Gurion laid the foundation for these relations was described by former Bundestag President Norbert Lammert in a speech before the Knesset in 2015 as a “double stroke of historical luck”.


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 is considering to expand the oil and gas sector in the coming years, thereby increasing production capacities even more, although experts as well as members of the government call for diversifying the Iraqi economic and energy sector.


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

Jordan has been considered an anchor of stability at least since the Arab Spring, which shook many countries in the region to their foundations. Maintaining this stability is of paramount interest to German foreign policy.


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

Although Libya is the fourth-largest country on the African continent, is located in the direct vicinity of Europe and is rich in natural resources, it has so far played quite a minor role as a German trading partner, apart from Germany’s substantial imports of oil. This is understandable in view of how power struggles among various factions plunged the country into chaos after the fall of Muammar Al-Gaddafi in 2011, resulting in several civil wars and laying waste to nearly all sectors of the economy.


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

Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean and the northern edge of the Sahara, the Kingdom of Morocco is highly vulnerable to climate change and its negative consequences. The country put the issue on its own agenda early on and drafted ambitious plans. In 2016, Marrakech hosted the 22nd United Nations Climate Conference (COP22). Today, Morocco has even become a regional leader in the areas of climate protection and sustainability.


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, its efforts to modernise and diversify its economy, as well as its oil wealth.


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.