The visit of US President Biden to Israel and the Gulf invites reflection on the European Union’s strategic priorities in this region, especially in view of Brussels’ newly claimed status as a ‘geopolitical player’. To keep things simple, let’s take a look at the Gulf and consider how EU values and interests might inform its foreign policy with regard to this region.
To begin with values, it is worth noting that most Arab Gulf countries have embarked on national modernization projects over the past decade. These have typically included a fair bit of state-building discourse, economic vistas, some social change and quite a bit of PR — like the Saudi desert city NEOM. Since the EU is itself a values-based modernization project, there could be common cause. Yet underneath many of the Gulf visions lies an ambition of economic diversification financed by maximum exploration of available fossil fuel resources, as well as continuity of authoritarian rule.
More participatory governance, social emancipation or a genuine shift towards ‘Fit for 55’ are only on offer in limited and controlled quantities. Political dissent is repressed in half the Arab Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – and tolerated up to a point in the others. The Emirati government, for instance, jailed many of the 133 signatories that signed a 2011 petition suggesting a number of democratic reforms. Things went downhill from there. Riyadh still regularly beheads Shi’a and other dissidents. None of this is too surprising given the Gulf’s social mechanisms of tribal rule and resource richness. It does not have to be a problem for the region’s development prospects either, given that authoritarian modernization is a possible growth pathway – consider South Korea or Singapore. But it does suggest poor equivalence of values.
SHARED INTERESTS RATHER THAN SHARED VALUES? —- In terms of economic, development and foreign policy interests, EU-Gulf alignment does not look much better. The Arab Gulf states are economically not very significant to the EU. In 2021, they represented about 3% of extra-EU trade in goods. Most of the region’s gas flows to Asia, not Europe. For example, Qatar’s ability to redirect gas towards European markets is constrained in the short-term by existing LNG contracts. In the medium-term, greater gas volumes are possible, but should not be taken for granted.
In development terms, none of the Arab Gulf countries is a member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee even though they have the funds and needs in the region are many. Sometimes lauded as ‘major providers of humanitarian aid’, the Arab Gulf states play only a modest role by a global standard like the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). The Emirates and Qatar contributed USD 20 million each over the period 2006 to 2022. This ranks them as donors no. 21 and 22 against the UK listing as the fund’s no. 1 donor with USD 1,7 billion over the same period. Other Arab Gulf states donated less.
Foreign policy-wise, post-2011 Saudi and Emirati hawkishness stands out which contributed significantly to the wars in Yemen and Libya. Especially the latter that worsened a thorny migration problem for the EU. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE also replayed Star War’s Episode V: ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ in their efforts of the last decade to counter the Arab uprisings with more authoritarianism. The region’s ambivalent stance towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine points to another major divergence of interests with the EU.
FRIENDS, ALLIES, SUPPLIERS — OR NONE OF THE ABOVE? —- If the Arab Gulf countries are neither friends, allies nor critical suppliers, and have limited additional energy supplies to offer, what are they to the EU? The recently released Joint Communication of the European Commission on relations with the Gulf provides the answer: They are ‘strategic partners’ across a range of domains that include sustainable energy, peace & security and human rights.
This is somewhat surprising given the above, to put it mildly. Also problematic is that the Communication contains a few analytical missteps. One is the assumption that the Al-Ula agreement of 2021 revived the Gulf Cooperation Council (at Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia and Qatar patched up their disagreements after Riyadh and Abu Dhabi blockaded Doha for a few years). Another is the suggestion that a revived nuclear deal will offer ‘a platform to reduce tensions in the region’. The problem lies in the fact that both the GCC and the nuclear deal will remain moribund whatever their formal fortunes because the main ingredient for true restoration is absent: trust.
Instead, the European Commission could strategically distinguish between Arab Gulf states that produce more problems than benefits, and those that do not. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain arguably belong in the first category. They do not merit a label of ‘strategic partners’. Kuwait, Qatar and Oman possibly fall into the second category. Enhanced cooperation with the EU in some fields might be desirable, such as long-term gas sales.
Zooming out, the Commission should reflect harder on the fact that the ‘Gulf’ is officially called ‘the Persian Gulf’. Launching a Gulf strategy without considering Iran seems odd. In particular, promoting the Arab Gulf states to ‘strategic partners’ after Brussels struggled to uphold its part of the nuclear bargain will not help diplomatic relations with Tehran. But these relations will be essential to maintain regional stability. There is no need for the EU to pick a shore of the Persian Gulf. Interest-based and more transactional diplomacy across the region will do.
‘What Bridges the Gulf and the European Union?’ — Op-Ed by Erwin van Veen — Clingendael / The Netherlands Institute of International Relations.