The United States, the Gulf Arab states, and Israel face escalated threats, both rhetorical and real.
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On May 18, the European Union unveiled a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf” aiming to broaden and deepen cooperation between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as its member states. The document focuses on economic, energy, security, and institutional relations as well as opportunities for cooperation on humanitarian issues and human rights. It also covers trade and investment, youth employment and business creation, and health care. Other areas of focus include transportation safety, management and connectivity, digitalization, research and innovation, and space. The document highlights substantive issues driving the EU-GCC partnership, including health and economic concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, growing challenges to the international rules-based order (such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for EU energy supplies), the transition to green energy, climate change, de-escalation in the Gulf (including the end of the Qatar boycott in 2021), and broader regional considerations. Further, a revitalized nuclear deal between the United States and Iran is discussed as an opportunity for a more positive era for Gulf security in which the EU and GCC can more effectively cooperate.
While varying degrees of bilateral relations have been established among members of the two blocs, collective economic agreements have struggled to get off the ground. Beyond the 1998 EU-GCC Cooperation Agreement, the two blocs have not been able to reach consensus on a free trade agreement, and negotiations were halted in 2008. A structured but informal EU-GCC Dialogue on Trade and Investment was launched in 2017, but China has done far better at rapidly building trade and investment ties as the non-oil sectors in the GCC have expanded. Nevertheless, the EU is still the second-biggest trade partner of the GCC member states, representing 12.3% of their total global trade in 2020. At the same time, the value of total trade between EU and GCC member states amounted to about $99 billion.
The EU as a More Autonomous Actor
Since 2018, when the administration of then-President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal with Iran, daylight has emerged between U.S. and EU policy on the Gulf. Since then, the EU and the United Kingdom, signatories to the JCPOA, have continued to engage Iran on issues such as human rights, economic cooperation, trade, and investment. On January 31, 2019, the E3 (the U.K., France, and Germany) announced the creation of the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges, Instex, to facilitate non-U.S. dollar and non-SWIFT transactions with Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions. The system is only meant to cover food and medicine, which are already exempt from U.S. sanctions and was not employed for the first year because of its limited use. Any European states using Instex to conduct transactions beyond this remit would be vulnerable to secondary U.S. sanctions. Beyond trade, the E3 and Italy have also engaged Iran in dialogue on regional flashpoints, such as Yemen. At a time of escalation between the United States and Iran in 2020, the EU stepped up as a more autonomous defense and security actor by launching the European Maritime Security Mission in the Strait of Hormuz. Based out of Camp de la Paix, in Abu Dhabi, the mission includes officers from Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France. This complements the EU’s Operation Atalanta off the Horn of Africa, European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz, and the Coordinated Maritime Presence in the northwest Indian Ocean.
Still, the EU lacks the deep, personal ties and arms sales to bind it more closely with the GCC states. For example, France was the third-largest arms supplier to Saudi Arabia from 2000 to 2019 with an 8.4% share of the total arms sold, behind the United States (60.6%) and the U.K. (18.2%).
Uneven Pace Within the EU’s Strategy
The EU strategy contains diverse elements, and these are bound to move at different speeds. How far and how quickly energy cooperation is stepped up will be key in determining success in this aspect of the strategic partnership. Certainly, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP28, to be hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 2023, offers an additional opportunity for engagement. The Saudi Green Initiative and Middle East Green Initiative are welcome additions in supporting the global climate change agenda and interregional collaboration, especially drawing on EU expertise to address the climate challenge. But there is also intra-GCC competition, including in green energy, which could compromise overall cohesion.
Under the umbrella of regional stability and global security, the EU’s strategic partnership document offers EU assistance to the GCC states and explicitly refers to Iran in terms of its impact on regional security through weapons transfers and the need for dialogue and confidence-building measures in Yemen. The EU includes all regional actors in its “gradual and inclusive approach” to provider greater security in the Gulf, focusing on aspects such as maritime safety, recalling the decision by the European Council in February to set up a Coordinated Maritime Presence in the northwest Indian Ocean. Other areas of concern include disaster prevention; nuclear safety; conflict prevention; counterterrorism cooperation; law enforcement cooperation; and responses to hybrid attacks. Perceptions of uncertainty about U.S. policy in the Middle East, obstacles to a revitalized U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran, and a lack of EU hard-power leverage could make for slow progress on sensitive security issues.
GCC states generally punch above their weight in humanitarian aid and development, and given similar aid portfolios and priorities held by the EU, cooperation is likely to be strong here. However, funding sometimes fails to live up to pledges on certain issues, such as Yemen. It often targets large-scale projects, which take time to come to fruition. GCC state aid and development initiatives tend to be state led and are therefore subject to unique political and security considerations. For example, GCC aid to Lebanon has experienced several interruptions, caused in 2016 by perceptions that Lebanese policy favored Iran and in October 2021 by comments from the Lebanese information minister at the time that were critical of the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Education partnerships could be significant as Gulf university students search to expand their education and career prospects and contribute to new knowledge-based and green economies. They could be supported by Erasmus Plus (with a budget of over $26 billion from 2021-27 mainly for students and staff to move between higher education institutions) or Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (for doctoral education and postdoctoral training, including in support of the European Green Deal, which aims to transform the EU into a “modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy”). The Horizon Europe framework program (with a large budget of over $95.7 billion aimed at tackling climate change and boosting EU competitiveness and growth) could have the greatest potential at creating and disseminating knowledge and technology between the EU and GCC. Encouraged by the government in Riyadh, for example, diversification of such partnerships in higher education enhances the prospects for significant expansion in this area.
In the strategic partnership document, the EU acknowledges that “human rights, democratisation and rule of law related challenges remain.” These are unlikely to be pursued in any meaningful way because the EU will want to avoid any repeat of the political and economic backlash that Germany suffered when then-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talked about Saudi “adventurism” in the Middle East in 2018.
Unresolved Challenges to Closer EU-GCC Ties
While the drivers of the EU strategy are clear, the pathway to de-escalation and conflict resolution in the Gulf and wider region is not. The war in Yemen continues, resurrection of the JCPOA is looking increasingly bleak, and the Qatar crisis exposed serious ideologically based cleavages in the GCC, all of which are likely to inhibit de-escalation in the Gulf. There is uncertainty surrounding the sustainability, shape, and form of de-escalation within the Gulf and regarding the extent to which Saudi Arabia and the UAE will develop relations with other regional actors, such as Turkey. The Abraham Accords have inserted Israel into Gulf affairs, and yet there was no mention in the strategy document of the EU working with Israel and the GCC states to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to test NATO’s resolve in Europe, while Russia and China are likely to continue to test Western resolve in guarding the Gulf. This is being facilitated by the balancing strategy of Saudi Arabia and the UAE as they hedge against perceived uncertainties in U.S. commitments. There are plenty of states interested in reinforcing their bilateral relations on the back of joint cooperation to help deliver the various economic diversification “vision” strategies of the Gulf. The EU was close to missing the boat on enhanced cooperation when compared to the major oil importers of the U.K. and Asia. Furthermore, post-Brexit, questions remain over how close the U.K. and EU will cooperate on defense and security issues, although their interests in the Gulf remain largely aligned.
There are also unrecognized societal challenges. France continues to grapple with balancing free speech domestically with wider Muslim concerns about blasphemy. For example, in response to a case of blasphemy in France in 2020, supermarkets in Kuwait and Qatar started boycotting French products. The case also motivated an attack on the French Consulate in Jeddah. Europe is struggling with populist politics, and, in some cases, the rise of the far right, highlighted by National Rally gains during France’s legislative elections in June, which could come to affect the complexion of the EU’s relations with the GCC. In the Gulf, too, hypernationalism and transitions away from more traditional forms of consultative politics could have a bearing on the EU’s local and regional objectives.
The EU’s Gulf strategic partnership strategy can best be read as a statement of intent and independence, establishing a new baseline for cooperation in the face of a series of major systemic and state challenges, not least from Brexit, variable U.S. policy, and the Russian war against Ukraine. While it is useful to externalize and crystalize intent, there should also be a recognition that this strategy will be a slow burner, and that there will be setbacks and difficulties ahead. It does bring into view, if not yet reach, a series of areas where if tangible cooperation can proceed, the economic weight and experience of the EU and GCC could inspire progress and a degree of certainty, especially on Gulf security and new energy and development projects, which are vital to the continued prosperity of both sides.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a non-resident fellow at the Gulf Research Center.
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