After Saudi border killings, Germany's police training comes under scrutiny

7 min read
19 September, 2023

Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning report documenting how Saudi border guards systematically shoot migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the border from Yemen.

Most of the migrants are Ethiopian and cross the Gulf of Aden in search of a better life in the Saudi kingdom, especially after conflict erupted in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray in 2020.

HRW established that, in the period from March 2022 to June 2023, Saudi border guards killed hundreds of migrants.

In a joint letter published in October 2022, UN experts had already pointed out that cross-border artillery shelling and small arms fire by Saudi Arabian security forces killed approximately 430 migrants in the first four months of 2022.

"Human Rights Watch released a damning report last month documenting how Saudi border guards systematically shoot migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the border from Yemen"

Those who survive the violence at the border are often sent back to Yemen stripped of their belongings or imprisoned in inhumane conditions in Saudi detention centers. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence.

HRW documented how Saudi border guards forced male migrants to rape migrant women after a man who rejected to do so was killed in front of them. Local charities in southern Yemen that help migrants before they head north to the Saudi border give birth control pills to women in case they are raped.

The recent HRW report puts consecutive German governments, including the current one, under the spotlight. Not only have German companies long exported technological products to Saudi Arabia to police its border with Yemen after receiving the authorisation of the German government, but the German Federal Police has also been training Saudi border guards for more than a decade.

In March 2009, the defence company European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), partly owned by the governments of Germany, France, and Spain, signed a contract of around $1 billion with Saudi Arabia to provide technologies for border control.

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Cassidian, the division of the company responsible for border technology, was headquartered on the outskirts of Munich. From there, a network of sensors, cameras, and radars at the Saudi border was coordinated.

Two months after the EADS deal was announced, Saudi Arabia and Germany signed an agreement to cooperate “in the field of security training” and prevent and combat crime, mentioning areas of special interest such as terrorism, forgery, and “the smuggling of illegal migrants.” The short time span between the economic and the political agreement was no coincidence.

The weekly current affairs magazine Stern reported in 2011 that the security cooperation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Germany had been a condition for Riyadh to award the contract to EADS and not to other companies vying for the lucrative deal. Saudi Arabia was reportedly interested in having a single country as an interlocutor. The police officers deployed to Saudi Arabia complained about having to perform tasks for EADS and being treated as if they were subcontractors for the company.

Further reports confirmed that Saudi Arabia paid for the deployment of the policemen directly to EADS, which then settled the accounts through a development organisation that works for the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Although German police forces have been deployed to more than 70 countries, this arrangement was unique.

Ethiopian migrants who are seeking political asylum or just a better life in Gulf states walk on foot along a highway to Saadah province to cross into Saudi Arabia, on 23 August 2023 on the outskirts of Sana'a, Yemen. [Getty]

In 2014, EADS was absorbed by its sister company Airbus S.A.S., further complicating the tracing of commercial deals between Saudi Arabia and German security companies providing border technology. However, the answer of the German government to a written question posed by an opposition member of parliament two weeks ago sheds some light on the topic.

Although the government did not agree to disclose the names of the companies involved (only authorised persons can access this information in the German Parliament), a list of dual-use and defence products for border control exported to Saudi Arabia under the permission of the German government is publicly available.

The value of the exports since 2009 is above €1.2 billion ($1.3 billion). The figure is similar to the one initially reported when the deal between EADS and Saudi Arabia was signed in 2009, but it is not possible to ascertain whether there is a direct connection. It also stands out that after nine years of uninterrupted exports, no sales were approved in 2018 and 2019, and no export permission appears in the list after 2020.

"The report on the mass killings of migrants at the Saudi-Yemeni border raises complicated questions for most parliamentary parties in Germany"

The German government itself calls for caution with the data it presents, arguing it cannot ensure that the information is complete as the compilation is based on manual evaluations of a large number of individual processes.

After the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, the German government reacted vocally and implemented a weapons export ban to Saudi Arabia. Although the embargo was sometimes flouted, it largely remained in place until July 2023. After Khashoggi’s death, the German government also halted the police cooperation programme with Saudi Arabia. However, it resumed less than one year afterwards, in September 2019.

Another answer of the German government to a written question posed by an opposition member of parliament in 2018 provides us with some details on the cooperation. Between 2009 and 2018, the annual costs of the police cooperation programme for the Saudi kingdom have normally remained between €1.5 million and €3 million. In its answer to the opposition parliamentarian, the government added that “the constitutional and human rights principles applicable in Germany are an integral part of the Federal Police's training measures”.

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After the latest revelations by HRW, the police cooperation programme between Saudi Arabia and Germany is subjected to renewed scrutiny. A representative of the German Interior Ministry told The Guardian that the training programme for Saudi border forces had been “discontinued after reports of possible massive human rights violations became known”. The official statement added that the training never took place in the border areas between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The ministry did not give any precise date on which police cooperation had ended.

The annual reports of the German Federal Police for 2020 and 2021 (the last year for which information is available) detail that Saudi-German police cooperation was ongoing. Furthermore, there was no official German reaction after UN experts published in late 2022 their report on the killing of migrants by Saudi border forces.

And, although less detailed than the recent report, HRW already mentioned the shooting of migrants in an investigation published in 2019. If HRW had managed to collect this information, it is reasonable to assume that the German government might have known more details.

Saudi border guards stand guard in the closed al-Tuwal border crossing with Yemen in the southern Jizan province on 3 October 2017. [Getty]

There are further reasons to believe that the official response of the German interior ministry to The Guardian was inaccurate, to say the least. A report by the investigative TV programme Monitor from the German public broadcasting corporation, released one day before the article in The Guardian, asked the Interior Ministry for information on the Saudi-German police cooperation project.

The reporters were told that the ministry wants “to stick to the training mission for the time being”. The same TV programme interviewed several German policemen who have participated in the training missions in Saudi Arabia. They have confirmed that the programme is ongoing, and that training was being provided at the Saudi-Yemeni border.

German-Saudi relations have been undergoing significant changes recently. In July, the Social Democrat Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who succeeded Angela Merkel from the centre-right CDU in 2021, introduced an exception to Germany's official policy of not exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia.

From now on, Germany will allow the sale of "products without operational relevance for the Yemen conflict”. Scholz had previously reached out to Saudi Arabia to diversify Germany’s energy providers after the decision to cut down imports from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

"The German Federal Police has been training Saudi border guards for more than a decade"

The report on the mass killings of migrants at the Saudi-Yemeni border raises complicated questions for most parliamentary parties in Germany. The CDU of former chancellor Angela Merkel is now in the opposition but headed the government for more than a decade and a half until 2021. The Social Democrats of current chancellor Olaf Scholz, as well as the Liberals, were the junior partners of the CDU in previous governments and are now governing Germany in a tripartite coalition with the Green Party.

The Greens, who in 2011 called for the immediate termination of the Saudi-German police cooperation agreement, currently have their two main leaders as Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor of the German government and Foreign Minister. They are also responsible for other ministries.

The questions for the current German government and the CDU are certainly uncomfortable, but this is exactly what makes adequate answers so necessary.

Marc Martorell Junyent is a graduate of International Relations and holds an MA in Comparative and Middle East Politics and Society from the University of Tübingen (Germany). He has been published in the London School of Economics Middle East BlogMiddle East MonitorInside ArabiaResponsible Statecraft and Global Policy

Follow him on Twitter: @MarcMartorell3