Gulf Arab states are at the centre of a new balance of power in the Middle East and north Africa (MENA). With US dominance of the region declining amid the chaos of the past decade, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have expanded their international role like never before. They pursued rivalries and developed alliances across north Africa and the Levant. They used military power to try to determine the outcome of intractable conflicts in Libya and Yemen. And they reached across borders to stifle or support grassroots Islamist movements, not least the Muslim Brotherhood and Shia resistance groups.
Meanwhile, European countries – long used to working under a US umbrella in the region – have struggled to adapt to the emerging multipolar regional order, and have been slow to acknowledge the impact of the political networks and vast financial resources of states such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. For European governments that recognise the many ways in which the MENA region is key to their interests, the situation is unsustainable.
Instability in the region poses a serious threat to Europe’s economic, energy, and physical security. This is clear from the dispute between the United States and Iran, which – centring on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a deal that European governments helped negotiate – could precipitate further military escalation between two major powers. The spread of conflict through countries in which some GCC actors have game-changing capabilities, such as Libya and Yemen, could force Europe to confront a rising terrorist threat and even a new refugee crisis.
The erosion of maritime security in the Gulf and off the coast of Yemen threatens to disrupt vital European trade networks. In all these areas, Europe must find new ways to address the destructive competition for influence between GCC states, their allies, and their rivals that stretches across the region. This complex situation has important implications for Europe owning to the shift in the balance of power towards Gulf Arab countries. The EU needs to realize that as GCC states gradually increased their influence, they see Europe as a weak strategic partner, not least in the MENA region. This neccesitates an independent, proactive strategy for Europe to protect its interests and increase its leverage over GCC states.
To succeed in this effort, European governments need to reassess the basic framework of their relationships with GCC states, and find a shared definition of their goals and priorities in the MENA region. To help overcome the intra-European divisions that GCC states have sometimes exploited, European governments should adopt a “core groups” framework in which they exchange traditional bilateralism for coordinated bilateralism. European countries can apply this strategy to several key crises in which intra-Gulf rivalries are particularly relevant, presenting actionable ideas for shaping these situations.
The basic rules of geopolitics dictate that Europeans cannot retrench from the MENA region. While other global players can refocus their attention on other regions or devise ways to protect their interests by containing the instability emanating from the region, Europe will always share a border with the Middle East. This simple fact should push Europeans to protect their interests by carving out a more strategically autonomous and effective role vis-à-vis key GCC actors.
To do so, Europe needs to take stock of how global and local power shifts affect the MENA region. This means adjusting to the United States’ shifting role in the region, as well as accounting for the rise of regional powers as game-changing actors. In this way, Europeans can adopt a proactive, autonomous strategy that strengthens their long-neglected geopolitical role in the Gulf. Working to overcome internal divisions through a flexible, issue-orientated core groups framework, Europeans can gain leverage over regional actors, especially those in the GCC. By navigating regional politics more effectively, Europeans can build new alliances to pursue their goals. The process of addressing the regional dimension of crises would enable Europeans to tackle the threats they face and grasp opportunities to enhance their geopolitical power.
‚A Gulf Apart: How Europe Can Gain Influence with the Gulf Cooperation Council‘ – Policy Brief by Cinzia Bianco – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.