Saudi Arabia is said to block some German business over rift on former minister’s comment


DUBAISaudi Arabia is cutting back on its dealings with some German companies amid a diplomatic spat with its top European trading partner, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Government agencies have been told not to renew some non-essential contracts with German firms following comments made in November by Germany’s then-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, two of the people said, asking not to be identified because the matter is private. Essential business is continuing as normal, they said.

Saudi Arabia’s tensions with Germany mark its first open spat with a European ally since 2015, when it briefly recalled its ambassador to Sweden. The kingdom has been adopting a more assertive foreign policy with the rise in power of 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed Salman. Among the contracts at risk are Deutsche Bank AG’s mandates in the kingdom, including a potential role on Saudi Aramco’s initial public offering, which could be the largest share sale ever, three of the people said.

The Saudi reaction “is a sign that the crown prince is in control of policy and willing to take risky steps in reaction to what he sees as anti-Saudi actions,” said Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs and Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University.

‘New Way’

“The old way would have been to make a public statement but to see if things could be smoothed over behind the scenes. The new way is to hit back and then see if things can be smoothed over,” he said.

Deutsche Bank, which is cutting jobs elsewhere, has been expanding in the kingdom to build a team of about 90 people on expectations that the nation’s stock exchange may be upgraded to emerging market status and the outlook for bond and stock sales improves.

International investor interest in Saudi Arabia remains high despite what authorities describe as an anti-corruption campaign in November that involved detaining hundreds of the kingdom’s wealthiest men, including princes, billionaires and government ministers. Global investment banks are bolstering their operations in the country to take advantage of business opportunities arising from the state’s plan for privatisations and investments in non-oil related sectors.

The appointment of a new German government last week, including Heiko Maas as foreign minister, could be an opportunity to ease tensions between the two countries, two of the people said.

The kingdom’s Center for International Communication said it didn’t have any information about the matter and therefore couldn’t comment. Deutsche Bank declined to comment. A spokesman for the German government also declined to comment.

Relations between the two countries started to deteriorate after the kingdom condemned remarks made by Gabriel in Brussels on Nov 13 when he suggested that Lebanon was a “pawn” of Saudi Arabia after the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Riyadh. Shortly afterward, the Saudi government summoned its ambassador to Germany home for consultation.

Prince Mohammed has been aggressive on national security matters, especially regarding Iran, Saudi Arabia’s rival for power in the region. Saudi Arabia has led a bombing campaign in Yemen since 2015 on behalf of a government ousted by Iran-backed Houthi rebels and cut off of ties with neighbouring Qatar in 2017 in part over its relationship with Iran. In January, Germany halted arms exports to parties involved in the Yemen conflict, including Saudi Arabia.

Top Trading Partner

Germany is Saudi Arabia’s top European trading partner and thirdlargest source of imports worldwide, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Siemens AG CEO Joe Kaeser has often touted his company’s close relationship with Saudi Arabia. Siemens last year received a blockbuster order for five gas turbines that will be used in a gas extraction plant in Fadhili and the company has a gas turbine manufacturing plant in the country’s Eastern Province. A spokesman for Siemens declined to comment on the political tensions.

German steel and elevator giant Thyssenkrupp AG is a large supplier to the kingdom through its maritime systems division which makes submarines and has also secured largescale contracts through its elevator division.

Prince Mohammed is in the middle of a tour to the UK and the US as he seeks to build a defence industry and attract more foreign investors. US President Donald Trump will welcome him to the White House tomorrow after the prince agreed to a goal of £65 billion (RM354.25 billion) of mutual trade and investment in the coming years with British Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this month.