German spy agency calls out Saudi imperialism

The German government issued an unusual public rebuke to its own foreign intelligence service on Thursday over a blunt memo saying that Saudi Arabia was playing an increasingly destabilizing role in the Middle East.
The intelligence agency’s memo risked playing havoc with Berlin’s efforts to show solidarity with France in its military campaign against the Islamic State and to push forward the tentative talks on how to end the Syrian civil war. The Bundestag, the lower house of the German Parliament, is due to vote on Friday on whether to send reconnaissance planes, midair fueling capacity and a frigate to the Middle East to support the French.
The memo was sent to selected German journalists on Wednesday. In it, the foreign intelligence agency, known as the BND, offered an unusually frank assessment of recent Saudi policy.
“The cautious diplomatic stance of the older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention,” said the memo, which was titled “Saudi Arabia — Sunni regional power torn between foreign policy paradigm change and domestic policy consolidation” and was one and a half pages long.
The memo said that King Salman and his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman were trying to build reputations as leaders of the Arab world.
Since taking the throne early this year, King Salman has invested great power in Prince Mohammed, making him defense minister and deputy crown prince and giving him oversight of oil and economic policy. The sudden prominence of such a young and untested prince — he is believed to be about 30, and had little public profile before his father became king — has worried some Saudis and foreign diplomats.
Prince Mohammed is seen as a driving force behind the Saudi military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which human rights groups say has caused thousands of civilian deaths.
The intelligence agency’s memo was flatly repudiated by the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin, which said the German Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had issued a statement making clear that “the BND statement reported by media is not the position of the federal government.”
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, “is in regular contact with his Saudi colleague Adel Al-Jubair, and has always stressed that the federal government counts on constructive cooperation with Saudi Arabia,” the statement added.
A government official in Berlin, speaking on condition of anonymity, added that it was the BND’s job “to supply the government with information, and to deliver hopefully clever analysis.”
“The BND certainly does not speak for German foreign policy, and definitely not through third parties” like the media, the government official said, adding that political advances in Syria and the Middle East in general could be achieved only with “constructive cooperation with Saudi Arabia.”
The BND declined on Thursday to comment on the memo, although an agency spokesman, Martin Heinemann, disputed German media reports describing it as a warning.
Germany has economic ties with Saudi Arabia, including arms sales to the government in Riyadh. Despite that, the government in Berlin has sometimes been publicly critical of the Saudis on human-rights issues. Last March, for example, just before visiting Riyadh, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the leader of the Social Democrats, criticized the sentencing of a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes and a large fine.
Mr. Steinmeier was instrumental in convening talks in Vienna last month on the Syria conflict, drawing together Saudi Arabia; its main regional rival, Iran; as well as Russia, the United States and other Western powers and regional actors including Turkey and Iraq.
Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, stressed the importance of what she repeatedly called “the Vienna process” and overall diplomacy even as she explained Berlin’s decision to assist military assaults on the Islamic State.
Germany is traditionally wary when it comes to deploying its military outside the NATO alliance. But both Mr. Steinmeier and Ms. von der Leyen have argued for the past two years that a more muscular presence overseas should be part of their country’s growing global leadership role. In the case of Syria, Germany is answering a call from its closest European ally, France, which has called for more international assistance to attack the Islamic State after terrorists killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13.
In its memo, the BND said that Saudi rivalry with Iran for supremacy in the Middle East, as well as Saudi dependency on the United States, were the main drivers of Saudi foreign policy.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry plays out throughout the region, the memo said, most recently and strikingly in the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. There, it said, “Saudi Arabia wants to prove that it is ready to take unprecedented military, financial and political risks in order not to fall into a disadvantageous position in the region.”
In Syria, Saudi Arabia’s aim was always to oust President Bashar al-Assad, and that has not changed, the memo said.
But it suggested that the recent shift in Saudi leadership has added new factors in the Middle East. “The concentration of economic and foreign policy power on Mohammed bin Salman contains the latent danger that, in an attempt to establish himself in the royal succession while his father is still alive, he could overreach with expensive measures or reforms that would unsettle other members of the royal family and the population,” the memo observed, adding, “That could overstrain the relations to friendly and above all to allied states in the region.”

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