At the outset of 2021, the Middle East continues to find itself in the midst of a transition. Numerous factors play a role including a regional order in flux: economic and social dislocation in numerous Middle Eastern countries, continued conflict and violence including in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, as well as uncertainty about the future role of key external actors such as the United States, Russia and China. Overall, the expectations are for continued volatility and instability for the years to come.
One potential bright spot could be the recent summit meeting of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia in January 2021 which began the process of bringing to an end the crisis within the GCC between Qatar on the one hand and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE on the other. The initiative to heal the GCC rift came at a time when there have been increased calls for de-escalation in the region and fits well with the new tone coming out of Washington with the new Biden administration. The statements coming from al-Ula were positively received in Europe as well with the associated hope that the reconciliation that has now been put on track within the GCC will also lead to a revitalization of GCC-EU ties.
A Disappointing Track Record
GCC-EU relations do not have a good track record. While a Cooperation Agreement between the two sides has been in place since 1988, there is little tangible to show for in terms of concrete programs and progress. A much anticipated Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has never materialized despite years of negotiations. With a rising feeling that the EU was continually moving the goalposts, the GCC actually withdrew from talks in 2008 and they have remained officially frozen since. An attempt to structure relations in specific policy areas, referred to as the Joint Action Programme (JAP), failed to produce concrete initiatives and was discontinued in 2013 after only an initial three-year period.
With the outbreak of the Arab Spring, political relations also became more contentious with the GCC states and the EU pursuing different priorities in terms of the trajectories of the protests and its implications. European hopes to break through the authoritarian structures in many Middle Eastern countries quickly found themselves confronted by the determination of GCC states to prevent protest from spreading while prioritising notions of stability and security over the reform and opening of political systems. One direct result was the cancellation of the 2014 EU-GCC joint ministerial meeting, held annually since 1988, following GCC complaints that the EU had unfairly criticized developments in Bahrain at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
It can thus be said that relations between the GCC states and Europe have been marked by degrees of dichotomy between ambition and reality. While the EU has become conscious of the rising strategic importance of the Gulf region, and while the GCC states are eager to strengthen their ties with Europe on political and economic grounds, both sides have remained hesitant and unsure of how to structure their relations in a mutually beneficial way. A key missing element is the level of prioritization accorded to each other. While the GCC is on the EU’s map, it is not seen as Europe’s immediate neighborhood where developments in Syria or Libya, for example, are viewed as greater pressing concerns. One direct result is that no EU country has taken the lead within the EU to push the Gulf further up the agenda.
The GCC states, meanwhile, continue to see the United States as their preeminent Western partners with Europe only playing a secondary role in ensuring their security. As such, there exists no agreement within the GCC about what role to assign to EU-GCC ties. The net result of these dichotomies is that ties between the GCC and Europe have been characterized by disconnected lines of cooperation with little consensus either within the EU or the GCC on where the relationship should be heading on the broader multilateral level.
There are also structural factors involved that have prevented more substantive ties from evolving. For one, both sides continue to prefer to deal with one another on a bi-lateral basis rather than in the more centralized multilateral EU-GCC framework. This, in turn, results in EU member states actually competing with one another in their economic and trade relations with individual GCC states rather than following the prerogatives that Brussels would like to see enacted. The GCC meanwhile have always preferred dealing with individual EU members and have in recent years also expanded their ties to Eastern Europe states such as Poland, Hungary and Serbia. In November 2020, the UAE and Greece signed a strategic partnership agreement including a defense pact. This also solidifies UAE influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Second, the EU and the GCC are very different institutions in terms of their set-up and decision-making procedures. Here, the bottom-up approach of the EU stands in clear contrast to the top-down methodology prevalent in the GCC states. This by itself leads to irritation as European Parliament resolutions that criticize the GCC, for example, are seen as unnecessary interference in the Gulf’s internal affairs while the GCC’s preference to handle relations at the personal one-to-one leadership level is viewed in Brussels as sidelining the EU’s institutional processes.
Third, unlike other regions, the GCC states are not in a position of economic dependency where the incentives of economic ties and development assistance from Europe can be used to tie the GCC states to European policy preferences. In fact, the GCC states are economic powerhouses on their own with GCC investments in Europe playing just as important a role for European economic well-being than the other way around. As a result, EU notions of leverage vis-à-vis the GCC lack any foundation.
Fourth, the complexity of the overall Middle East strategic environment has, particularly in recent years, overwhelmed Europe’s toolbox of responsive policy measures, in turn increasing substantially both geographically and thematically. Thus, in addition to traditional concerns over terrorism and proliferation, issues such as sectarianism, state failure, refugee and migratory flows, renewed forms of authoritarianism, corruption and environmental degradation have been added to the existing regional security agenda. Given the increased uncertainty over the future U.S. role in providing for Gulf security, the GCC states themselves have broadened their own foreign and security role in the wider region. Europe thus finds itself challenged with additional actors whose wider engagement across a range of issues needs to be considered and whose policy interests do not necessarily coincide with European preferences. The UAE’s involvement in Libya, Saudi Arabia’s policy towards Lebanon, or even strengthened ties between Qatar and Turkey are all cases in point.
What the above points to is a complicated set of relations that have so far not met the expectations that have been associated with EU-GCC ties. At the same time, the repair of the intra-GCC rift initiated at the al-Ula summit, could result in those relations being put on a more positive trajectory.
Resolving the GCC rift
From the very onset of the GCC crisis in June 2017, the EU struggled to find an effective response. Both EU warnings that tensions in the region could further rise and the EU’s offer of mediation were met largely by a non-response of the conflict parties. With the GCC as an institution in a state of disarray, the EU additionally found itself confronted by the dilemma of how to conduct business with the GCC states in the multilateral framework. Initially, EU-GCC ties largely came to a halt with no annual joint EU-GCC Ministerial Council meeting held and Joint Cooperation Committee and Senior Officials Meeting not being convened.
In response, the EU put forward the concept of bilateral Cooperation Agreements (CA) as a supplementary framework through which issues of common interest could continue to be discussed. To date, the EU has signed such bilateral agreements with Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and most recently with Bahrain in February 2021.[i] The move towards primarily bilateral forms of engagement even at the EU institutional level reflects a level of flexibility by the EU. Instead of simply accepting the crisis as a fait accompli, Brussels opted to also see it as an opportunity to advance on issues at the individual GCC level including on matters considered sensitive from the GCC side.
At the multilateral level, the EU by-and-large remained equally pragmatic. The EU opened a new delegation office in Kuwait in July 2019 with responsibility for both Kuwait and Qatar. This followed the first EU delegation office in Riyadh in 2004 and in the UAE in 2013. Mechanisms such as the 10th GCC-EU Economic Dialogue were held in Brussels in November 2019 and discussions with the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh also remained active. There was even talk of a possible resumption of GCC-EU free trade area talks with both sides indicating an interest.[ii]
The news of an end of the GCC rift with Qatar was subsequently welcomed by the EU with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Josep Borrell stating that the move would “strengthen regional stability and restore GCC unity and cooperation in full.” He went on to note that the EU stood ready “to support further regional integration within the Gulf Cooperation Council and to strengthen its long-standing partnership with the GCC.”[iii]
The Way Ahead
With the crisis within the GCC on the road to a full resolution, chances to also strengthen EU-GCC relations have improved markedly. Overall, as suggested by the EU’s High Representative, the EU remains committed to see the GCC as a functioning organization that can contribute to better regional integration and conflict resolution as well as more effective multilateralism.
To begin to bridge the current gap between expectation and results, however, EU-GCC ties face an uphill climb. The constraints and contradictory policies in place that have acted as obstacles in the past are still there. Moreover with the world experiencing turbulence associated with the transition through a fraying international order, questions continue about Europe’s capacity and willingness to position itself as a central actor when it comes to the Middle East and the Gulf region. The ambition of the current European Commission to be more “geopolitical” and the reference of the EU’s High Representative Borrell that Europe must learn the “language of power” are, for the moment, still largely rhetorical. What this means for the GCC is a lack of confidence that Europe is indeed ready to undertake the necessary investment in the Gulf’s long-term security. While the potential role of Europe as the only actor able to work with all political players in the region in the search for potential solutions is recognized, it is simultaneously undermined by a lack of political will and hesitancy in the approach the EU takes.
Equally, there are questions that persist with regard to the GCC as an institution. The al-Ula summit closed, at least for now, a particularly contentious time in the GCC’s history. In fact, the GCC has just gone through its deepest crisis and it will still take some time to see all wounds heal. Whether the GCC member states will be ready in the coming years to draw the relevant lesson from this episode and invest the necessary time and effort at reforming the GCC as an institution remains very much in doubt. This, in turn, limits the effectiveness that EU-GCC ties as a whole can generate. While an effort should be undertaken to strengthen the multilateral level of ties, relations between Europe and the GCC states will likely instead proceed at the bilateral level with some momentum provided by EU mechanisms such as the E3 (France, the United Kingdom and Germany) which would include a role for the UK following Brexit.
[i] European External Action Service (EEAS), “Bahrain: EU and Bahrain sign a Cooperation Agreement,” Press Release, February 10, 2021, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/92954/Bahrain:%20EU%20and%20Bahrain%20sign%20a%20Cooperation%20Arrangement.
[ii] Discussion with a senior GCC official, June 2019;” Trends and Opportunities in EU-GCC Trade Relations,” Webinar organized by the Bussola Institute, August 25, 2020 with the EU Commissioner for Trade Phil Hogan, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LXKJKLlvRiQ.
[iii] “GCC: Statement by the High Representative Josep Borrell on the normalisation of relations among Gulf countries,” January 6, 2021, https://eeas.europa.eu/diplomatic-network/gulf-cooperation-council-gcc/91184/gcc-statement-high-representative-josep-borrell-normalisation-relations-among-gulf-countries_en.