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The Netherlands lifts arms embargo against Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia

Dutch government changes policy following Turkish support for Sweden's Nato membership bid, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE also benefitting
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters participate in a military training exercise in Tadif, eastern Aleppo province, on 23 May 2023 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

The Netherlands has lifted arms restrictions imposed since 2019 against Turkey, following Ankara's move to back Sweden's Nato accession.

In a letter addressed to the Dutch parliament last week, the government said it was abolishing its long-standing national “presumption of denial policy” in order to reform its arms exports restrictions framework. 

“The presumption of denial policy, which currently applies to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, will expire immediately,” the government in The Hague said. 

The Netherlands, like other European countries, imposed arms restrictions on Turkey following its incursion into Syria in 2019.

In 2021, the Dutch government partially relieved this policy, saying that arms export licences would only be issued if Turkey could incontrovertibly demonstrate that the weapons would not be used in northeastern Syria. 

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The Netherlands also applied its "presumption of denial policy" to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, following their entry into the war in Yemen.

Sources in Ankara told Middle East Eye that the Dutch position shifted after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to move Sweden’s Nato membership bid to the Turkish parliament for ratification last week.

Erdogan had been holding up Stockholm's application to join the Atlantic alliance over what the Turkish government described as concerns relating to counter-terrorism and arms embargoes. Sweden is home to a number of high-profile Kurdish exiles considered terrorists by Ankara.

Deals and loopholes

In its letter, the Dutch government said its primary motivation in removing the arms policy was laying the legal groundwork to make the Netherlands part of the 2019 French-German landmark control of defence exports treaty, which establishes a common framework to better address arms exports issues to third countries.

Under the deal, France has been able to export arms jointly produced with Germany to countries like Saudi Arabia, which Germany had sanctioned. These deals have not been blocked by Berlin, as long as the German contribution is below 20 percent.

“The presumption of denial [policy] can lead to transactions that cannot be clearly linked to Syria and Yemen, but meet a legitimate security need, also having to be rejected,” the Dutch government said. “Continuation of this policy could lead to an undesirable situation in which the Netherlands would have to block such transactions under the treaty.” 

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A 2018 Dutch government report indicates that it blocked sales to Turkey even before the arms embargo, on the grounds of the EU Common Position, which requires EU member states to deny an export licence if there is a “clear risk” that the arms and goods “might be used” to commit serious violations of international humanitarian law.

The blocked articles included components for military fighter helicopters, non-combustible light panels and acoustic sensors for detecting and localising gunfire. 

“Despite the abolition of the national policy, the Netherlands will continue to closely monitor the importance of Dutch goods not being used in conflicts in Northern Syria or Yemen and will bring this to the attention of the other contracting parties at all levels, including politically,” the Dutch government said in its letter. 

“This practice is similar to the German one. In extreme cases, the Netherlands is prepared to object to undesirable transactions via the 'emergency brake procedure', which cannot be lifted without consensus.” 

The Netherlands used to mainly export parts for tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as technology and parts for fighter planes and attack helicopters, to Turkey, anti-war group Stop Wapenhandel said in a report released in 2017.

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