BERLIN // Germany is considering a request from Qatar for 200 Leopard II battle tanks in a huge deal that highlights a recent surge in western weapons exports to Gulf states.
The sales bolster the region's military capabilities against Iran and give European countries much-needed cash in the euro crisis.
The UAE, which has been modernising its forces with aircraft and missiles, increased its arms imports by 154 per cent in 2011 from 2010, according to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Qatar's imports rose seven-fold in the same period, while Saudi Arabia's grew 6.8 per cent.
The Qatar deal, which would be worth almost €2 billion (Dh9bn), has yet to be approved by the German government. But it has a good chance of getting the green light after Berlin last year approved the sale of 200 Leopard II tanks, regarded as among the world's best, to Saudi Arabia.
The sales mark a sea-change in foreign policy after the country had for decades refused Arab requests for military hardware, citing its historical obligation to Israel.
Germany, like its Nato partners, now views Gulf states as important allies in a possible confrontation with Iran, which is defying western attempts to curtail its nuclear programme, and even as potential partners in future military ventures like last year's in Libya.
"Foreign economic policy plays an important role in the deals, with countries wanting to make sure that their access to oil and gas is not disturbed, especially not by Iran," Siemon Wezeman, an SIPRI analyst, told The National.
The military contribution made by the UAE and Qatar in last year's intervention in Libya came as a surprise to the West, and Arabian Gulf countries with their modern weaponry could factor in international planning for possible action against Iran, said Mr Wezeman.
"The US has plans on Iran, and those will not come without some kind of backup from some of the Gulf states," he said. "The military systems of those countries can cooperate and coordinate with the US or other western systems."
Western hardware is generally favoured over Russian and Chinese equipment because Gulf states have the money to pay for "the best of the best" and want technical support, training and upgrades. Western suppliers have a good record for that, said Mr Wezeman.
Germany is the world's third-biggest weapons exporter behind the US and Russia even though it has set itself tougher restrictions on arms sales than most of its partners. Export deals are subject to approval by a cabinet committee chaired by Angela Merkel, the chancellor, and sales to crisis regions are usually refused.
But with the rules now being relaxed, Germany looks set to expand its presence in the global arms market even further.
Mrs Merkel, dissatisfied with the outcome of the international mission in Afghanistan, has introduced a new doctrine of strengthening allies in crisis regions through arms sales that may lessen the need to dispatch western troops in future, German media reports said this week.
Berlin has declined to comment on the existence of such a "tanks rather than soldiers" doctrine, true to its tradition of shrouding its weapons exports in secrecy.
But a government spokesman this week confirmed that Mrs Merkel has been sounding out the possibility that Nato could draw up common guidelines identifying non-Nato countries that should be strengthened militarily. .
In effect, the tank deals are merely bringing Germany into line with the less restrictive export practices of its partners.
"It is hard not to suspect that industrial and employment factors play a role here," said Marc von Boemcken of the Bonn International Centre for Conversion, a research institute on military trends.
With western defence budgets shrinking, German weapons manufacturers have lobbied the government to remove political hurdles to exports.
Germany has stopped buying Leopard II tanks, made by Krauss-Maffei Wegmann in Kiel, for its own armed forces.
"The production line is coming to its end, there is no replacement," said Mr Wezeman. "If you want to keep that production line going you have to look at exports, so an order from Saudi Arabia and Qatar would be a godsend."
Keeping production lines going for complicated systems such as the Leopard II or the Eurofighter jet is not only important for the economy, but for strategic military reasons as well.
If plants were shut down, technical capabilities would be lost forever, and countries would be unable to develop new weapons generations when they need them, according to Mr Wezeman.