January 20, 2010: In an interview one year ago,
Germany's new foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who is gay,
said that if he were to become foreign minister, having
"a relationship with a man"
would not be a problem for his future international
contacts. His visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month was a
major test of his ability to interact with representatives
of conservative cultures.
Saudi Arabia is one of the most conservative countries in
the entire world. Strict adherence is paid to separation of the
sexes, and homosexuals occasionally face death in extreme
cases. With his visit in Riad it appears that Westerwelle has
shown that a gay politician can represent German interests in
the Muslim world, providing an answer to observers in Berlin
who wondered what the outcome might be.
Westerwelle's visit to Saudi Arabia was the focus of special
attention because of comments he had made prior to becoming
Germany's foreign minister last fall. Westerwelle had suggested
that Germany needed to be more active internationally in
promoting equal rights, and he even demanded that foreign aid
be canceled for countries where homosexuals face the death
penalty and women do not have the right to vote.
It is not difficult to make such statements when your seat
in parliament is on the opposition side of the aisle. It
becomes a challenge to repeat them publicly once you are in
power, especially on a visit to a conservative foreign country
as an official representative of your government. A public plea
in Riad for more tolerance for the gay community would have
been a scandal and damaged German-Saudi relations. But
Westerwelle would also have lost credibility at home if he had
said nothing at all. So the language of diplomacy came into
At a joint press conference with Saudi foreign minister
Prince Saud, Westerwelle emphasized that there had been some
differences of opinion during their bilateral meeting.
According to Westerwell, human rights and religious plurality
were among the subjects discussed. Prince Saud replied by
saying that the world was well served by differences based on
different value systems. Everyone present for the press
conference knew what was being talked about even if the subject
itself was not mentioned directly.
Westerwelle's successful visit to Saudi Arabia doesn't mean
that his personal lifestyle will never be a source of concern
for his diplomatic hosts. Prior to visiting Italy after
becoming foreign minister he had asked whether it would be a
problem for his male friend to accompany him on the trip. In
preparation for his visit to Turkey, the German foreign
ministry had asked German diplomats in Turkey the same
question. Having Westerwelle's male friend along for the trip
to Ankara would have caused protocol problems for Turkey's
conservative government in a predominantly Islamic country.
German diplomats informed their Turkish colleagues that their
new foreign minister would be traveling by himself on his visit
to Turkey. Westerwelle is not only gay, but also a