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The need for an EU Gulf Strategy in the wake of the Arab spring

An article by Michael Bauer

16.05.2011 · Europe's World

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The Arab spring has led to political changes across North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf. As a result, the political landscape is more diverse than ever. For external actors like the EU, a differentiated policy approach is needed that takes into account the particularities of the different regions and Europe’s own scope of influence.


In the case of the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Europeans will have to acknowledge that their influence on political developments is only limited: the EU neglected the region in the past and the six GCC members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are very reluctant towards foreign interferences in domestic affairs. Hence, a modest approach is in order and Europe should focus on a general enhancement and expansion of its relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council, its members and their civil societies.


The Persian Arab Gulf is a major factor for global energy markets and, in turn, for European energy security. The Gulf countries’ wealth and interest in technological development has made them attractive partners for European enterprises and research institutions alike. The region’s population is well educated, sees itself as part of the global civil society and has an interest in participating in the political life of its respective home countries. The Arab spring showed that the sustainability of the political order is also an issue in the comparatively rich Gulf countries and that demands for political reforms cannot be bought off with economic benefits only.

Yet, the region also faces serious security challenges, such as the dispute about the Iranian nuclear and missile programs, the stability and regional role of the new Iraq and Yemen’s political fragility.

The EU policy towards the GCC has been restrained as a result of the EU’s internal institutional structure as well as the political practices and preferences of its member states. There are only eclectic references to the Gulf countries in the 2004 Final Report on a Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and the EU does not include these countries in its Neighbourhood Policy. Unsurprisingly, in the absence of an overarching strategic framework, the EU’s policy towards the GCC and its members lacks coherence, continuity, and ultimately substance. This has limited the EU’s ability to pursue its interests and create synergies with its regional partners.

This is not to say that the EU does not have the Persian-Arab Gulf region on its foreign policy agenda at all, as the continuing efforts of Germany, France, and the UK (the EU-3) to lead the negotiations with Iran, the EU’s engagement with Yemen or the recent publication of an EU-Iraq Strategy Paper indicate. Yet European influence has been constrained due to its neglect of the GCC and its members. So far, the EU’s relations to the GCC are based on the Cooperation Agreement that was concluded in 1988, and since then, both sides have been unsuccessful in attempts to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) that should serve as a basis not only to expand bilateral trade, but also as foundation for improved political relations. In addition, only some member states actively sought access to regional politics and to further develop their relations with the GCC countries. Among them, only France and the UK displayed some strategic ambitions, while the main focus has been on economic interests.

Hence, while the EU has repeatedly acknowledged the political and strategic significance of the Arab Gulf countries, EU and member-state policies have mainly concentrated on the economic and trade aspects of the relations with the GCC members. In the case of the EU-GCC relations, this emphasis has even backfired as the whole partnership has been overshadowed as a result of the stalemate in the FTA negotiations.

Against this background, a reassessment of the EU Gulf policy is long overdue. In order to enhance its relations with the Gulf countries, the EU should establish closer consultations with the region’s governments, seek to decentralising the relationship through a stronger inclusion of civil societies and expand cooperation beyond trade issues. Finally, Europeans should engage in public diplomacy efforts and broaden the EU’s presence in the region beyond Riyadh. Efforts along these lines will contribute to raising the awareness about the EU, increase mutual responsiveness, and bolster the relationship.

In order to strengthen the political and institutional framework, the EU should seek to upgrade the annual Joint Council and Ministerial Meetings in terms of participation and content and use it as a forum not only to exchange views but also to actually coordinate policies. Europeans and Gulf Arabs share similar assessments and objectives regarding some of the key security challenges in the Middle East, and the EU should proactively explore the potential for joint initiatives with regards to these challenges. Examples that include the Track II proposal for a NW/WMD-free zone in the Persian Arab Gulf, the revival of the “Iraq and its Neighbours” format as a nucleus for a regional security forum, the efforts of the “Friends of Yemen” group to stabilize the country, or the “Arab Peace Initiative” that, for the time-being, represents the only official proposal for a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Moreover, the political and socioeconomic changes in the Arab world are another issue of common concern. Europe and the GCC countries share an interest that the transformation processes are peaceful and lead to sustainable and viable political systems. The GCC backed the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya and sought to mediate in the political stalemate in Yemen. Yet, the Arab spring has also reached the Gulf countries themselves: even though the tradition and popularity of their monarchic systems and their economic capacities to provide the public with economic benefits, generated a considerably higher degree of legitimacy than could be found, for instance, in North Africa, calls for political and socioeconomic reform have been voiced in the GCC countries, too. While the protests in the GCC were by and large less intensive than in other parts of the Middle East, violent confrontations took place in Oman and Bahrain. While the Omani leadership proposed political and socioeconomic reforms in response to the public uprisings, the situation in Bahrain escalated when the government cracked down on the protest movement and Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops to support King Hamad.

The GCC countries seem to have accepted that political changes in North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East are unstoppable. Yet, they react with great unease to the public protests at home. As it was mainly Shiite population that took to the streets in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern provinces, the GCC countries fear that Iran is trying to use to public protests to increase its regional influence. Justified as concerns about Iran’s regional role are, the protest movements seem to have been primarily motivated by concerns related to domestic politics. It will be impossible to restore the status quo ante and political stability can only be regained through political and socioeconomic reforms that increase the participation and representation of different groups and segments of society and thereby expand the legitimacy of the political system. Moreover, also the legal situation of foreign labourers is an issue that still holds considerable potential for conflict in the GCC countries.

Admittedly, the EU has only limited influence on the regional decision-makers when it comes to such a delicate issues like political reforms. Nonetheless, Europeans should encourage and assist governments in the region to engage in reform efforts that strengthen the political rights of the local population, enhance the freedom of the press and allow for a stronger role of civil society in the political process. Reforms will not undermine the political systems in the GCC. To the contrary real socioeconomic and political reforms will strengthen their legitimacy and help the countries in their efforts to achieve economic and political modernization. Moreover, with view on the violent escalation in Bahrain, the EU should support proposals that call for comprehensive and transparent investigations of the events in order to create a basis for national reconciliation and political reforms.

On the somewhat less controversial level, the EU and the GCC have only recently sought to further their relationship: the agreement on a “Joint Action Programme for the Implementation of the GCC-EU Cooperation Agreement” at the 2010 Ministerial Meeting must be regarded as a very positive step towards overcoming, or at least mitigating, the misgivings that have been caused by the impasse in the negotiations about the FTA and expand the relationship to also include the private sector, research institutions, universities and other nongovernmental actors. It should be a political priority for the EU to start with a swift implementation of this program through concrete projects and joint working groups. In addition to the long-standing Energy Dialogue, the common agenda in the field of higher education seems to be the most advanced. Also, the GCC countries’ interest in alternative sources of energy and sustainability fits well with the European political, environmental, and economic priorities. Yet the other fields of cooperation must also be actively pursued. Particular emphasis in this context should be on projects that involve small- and medium-sized enterprises, civil society organizations, as well as research institutions. Moreover, the EU should specifically invest in projects that encourage people-to-people contact and strengthen the EU presence in the region. The EU-funded “Al-Jisr Project on EU-GCC Public Diplomacy and Outreach” with its training, research, conference, and translation components is an excellent example in this regard. Efforts along these lines will go a long way to not only realize joint potentials, but also to raise awareness about the EU, connect societies and thereby substantiating the relationship.

Moreover, some of the GCC projects, such as a customs union, a common market, or a common currency, resemble the EU model, and dialogue regarding best practices and lessons learned from the European experience between the GCC Secretariat and the respective EU institutions should offer to help the GCC to refine its institutional structure. A strengthened GCC should also be a political objective as it would correspond with the EU’s concept of “effective multilateralism”. The GCC is currently the only viable multilateral institution in the region, yet there is still considerable room for improving the institutional structures and processes.

Amid the great potential that can be realized in the EU-GCC relations, a EU Gulf Strategy must also consider the wider geostrategic characteristics of the region. Persian Arab Gulf security is currently determined through a balance-of-power system that has not only been off balance since the US invasion in Iraq, but is also based on mistrust and a zero-sum understanding of security. While it would certainly be overambitious for the EU and its member states to attempt to fundamentally alter the region’s balance of power, a strengthening of their relationship with the GCC and its member countries, and a firm commitment to their security and sovereignty, as well as closer cooperation between the EU and the GCC in their efforts to support the political reconstruction of Iraq, would contribute to regional stability.

Moreover, the EU should seize upon existing, or encourage new, initiatives that address issues of regional concern and reach across the existing lines of conflict. Cooperation on countering drug trafficking and illegal immigration, or in the field of counterterrorism already exists within the GCC and between the GCC members and Iran; these efforts should be expanded in their intensity and scope. Additional topics such as maritime security and water management, disaster response, or education and research might be added. Efforts of this kind would support the establishment of a political culture in the region that is more favourable to cooperation.


Given the strategic importance of the GCC countries for the European Union and its member states, advancing a EU Gulf Strategy seems long overdue. Such a strategy should not be overambitious in terms of the role Europeans would like to play. However, it should provide a balanced framework for the policies and relationships that currently reflect both regions’ interests by helping the EU to coordinate its activities and by establishing a solid partnership between governments and societies of Europe and Gulf.

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