German Chancellor Angela Merkel waved the legal requirement to wear a head covering in public during her one-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, but discussions centered on business cooperation and the complex geopolitics of the region.
Merkel also did not wear a hijab during a previous tour of the region in 2007, and more recently, neither have Hillary Clinton, in her role as Secretary of State, nor Theresa May, during her first official visit to the Middle Eastern state as Prime Minister earlier this month.
While Saudi men do not usually acknowledge women in public, Merkel greeted King Salman and other top officials from the House Saud with handshakes as a lavish luncheon banquet was laid on in her honor.
Merkel recently backed a law banning the wearing of full-face Islamic veils in government jobs in Germany.
Saudi Arabia has also been controversially elected to a UN women’s rights panel, despite the severe legal restrictions that it places on its own population. Some of these involve a driving ban for women and the requirement to obtain a male’s permission for any significant public act, such as enrolling in education or traveling for example.
“Saudi Arabia has made marginal improvements on women’s rights in recent years, primarily in employment and access to higher education, but such changes have been hindered or even nullified because authorities have allowed the male guardianship system to remain largely intact, enabling men to maintain control over female relative’s lives,” said Adam Coogle of Human Rights Watch ahead of Merkel’s arrival.
According to the German embassy in the country, Merkel was due to meet a select group of female entrepreneurs while visiting the country’s economic capital Jeddah, as a symbolic gesture of solidarity.
Digital, military deals signed
A diplomatic briefing said the German leader, who faces a battle for re-election in September, would also focus on the upcoming G20 meeting in Hamburg, Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to accept a sizeable numbers of refugees from Middle Eastern conflicts, and the continuing Riyadh-led military campaign in Yemen.
“We believe in the UN-led process of diplomatic resolution,” said Merkel in Jeddah. “We do not think that there can be a military solution to this conflict.”
Neither side has revealed whether any progress was made on these issues, but the most tangible result appears to have been a selection of lucrative business deals clinched by Germany during the brief sojourn.
German companies Siemens and SAP, whose top executives traveled in Merkel’s delegation alongside the top representatives of Lufthansa and Deutsche Bahn, signed declaration of intent, stating that they would participate in the “digital transformation” of the country.
Agreements were also signed for both Saudi soldiers and policemen to receive training from their German counterparts, with some expected to be stationed in Germany.
Angela Merkel will next visit the UAE, during her week-long trip.