• Login

Europe, the Gulf, and the Tough Neighborhood

29 January 2024

When asked about their approach to relations with important nations in different regions and how they strategically use these connections to strengthen ties with influential regional blocs, European officials consistently emphasize the need to prioritize and align with the collective interests of the 27 member states of the European Union. It appears that the European Union is assimilating valuable insights from the major transformations shaping today's world. There is a clear intention to show a greater level of interest in the priorities and interests of countries and regional entities with whom they want to deepen partnerships. This initial step is taken before engaging in discussions about expanding the partnership agenda, ensuring that European interests are not the sole focus of the dialogue.

From a European standpoint, there is a growing recognition that recent decades have seen a decline in European interests due to issues related to democracy and human rights. As a result, there is an increasing inclination to seek new approaches for bilateral relations with the countries of the Middle East and the Gulf regions, in a shift that is characterized by a departure from the unilateral imposition of the European agenda on any of these nations or regional groupings. Furthermore, the development of an understanding with partner countries or regional groupings associated with the European Union emphasizes the need for strategic partnerships. It is acknowledged that complete alignment in visions is not necessary, but the ultimate goal remains a shared objective, even if the parties employ different methods to achieve it.

In May 2022, a few months after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) announced a significant "Strategic Partnership with the Gulf", signaling a commitment to enhance collaboration between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and its member states. This strategic document intricately addresses multifaceted dimensions encompassing economic synergy, energy cooperation, security imperatives, institutional ties, and prospects for collaboration on humanitarian endeavors and human rights. It goes further to encompass pivotal realms such as trade and investment, fostering youth employment and entrepreneurial ventures, and fortifying healthcare initiatives. It takes into account critical areas such as transportation safety, management, connectivity, digitalization, research, innovation, and space exploration.

The European Union is strategically realigning its policies, deepening collaborations with influential regional blocs in the global economy. This shift is driven by key factors, particularly the practical rivalry between the United States and China for influence in diverse geographic regions. Consequently, the European Union is compelled to navigate today's dynamic landscape, skillfully maneuvering through the competition between these two major powers. In recent European political discourse, the use of terms such as "constructive partnership," "strategic collaboration," "revisiting historical missteps," and "working collectively for the well-being of our societies" has become increasingly prevalent. This reflects a significant shift within the expansive bloc as it seeks to navigate the global disruptions highlighted by the Russian conflict in Ukraine and the Gaza crisis. These events have brought to the forefront the notable ideological differences in positions between the European Union and its preeminent partner and ally, the United States.

In her annual State of the European Union (SOTEU) address to the European Parliament on September 13, von der Leyen emphasized Europe's need to enhance its competitiveness in key industries and pivotal technologies to achieve its geopolitical objectives. For example, she highlighted the importance of Europe not losing ground in the global electric vehicle (EV) market, drawing attention to a past scenario where Europe allowed China to dominate its solar industry.

The European Union feels that its international contributions are not fully recognized and desires acknowledgment that reflects the genuine efforts of its 27 member states. Despite being the largest global contributor to Official Development Assistance and international climate finance, the EU and its member states face challenges in bolstering their credibility and reliability in the eyes of partners.

Many European politicians believe that the global order will not be solely defined by a rivalry between a bloc led by China, and another led by the United States. Instead, the EU is now focusing on regional blocs and middle powers that have greater autonomy than during the Cold War, actively cultivating their influence on the international stage. These blocs and states are strategically navigating the US-China competition, either leveraging it to their advantage or, in numerous instances, challenging it outright. The choices these middle powers make regarding their relationships with the superpowers and among themselves will significantly shape the new world order. This range can span from bipolarity to fragmentation. If, collectively, these powers decide to align with one of the superpowers, a new bipolar confrontation may ensue. Conversely, if they pursue more flexible strategies and avoid rigid alignments, the result will be a more unpredictable and disorderly global landscape.

The E.U. and Gulf: The Dangerous Neighborhoods

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict has underscored the pressing need for Europe to recalibrate its approach to energy relations with the Middle East and Gulf states. It is crucial to avoid entrenching dependence on regional actors and instead pursue a strategy aligned with shared interests in peace, stability, and prosperity through a sustainable, diversified, and long-term vision. In addressing European energy security and climate objectives, a decisive shift away from fossil fuels is paramount. This transition extends beyond nurturing green energy partnerships to encompass comprehensive industrial decarbonization and promoting a broad green shift in both regions.

The landscape of energy geopolitics has undergone a seismic shift following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, triggering concerns of an impending energy security crisis in Europe. Consequently, there is a growing impetus to heed the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) call for a transition that mitigates socio-economic disruption.

Simultaneously, as GCC states bolster energy ties with Russia, they are recognizing the potential for strategic energy partnerships with the EU. The EU, as a major market capable of absorbing substantial quantities of green energy in the short term, presents an appealing opportunity. Engaging in energy trade with the EU not only enhances GCC energy security but also strategically reduces reliance on the Chinese market, which is aggressively pursued by Russia. European stakeholders have identified three promising areas for energy collaboration with GCC states which are: (1) energy efficiency and electrification, (2) renewable energy, and (3) the circular carbon economy.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the current war in Gaza, the Gulf nations are aware that a broader conflict could significantly threaten their geo-economic interests and economic growth plans. It is important to delineate a clear political path for the region, promoting meaningful dialogue among the parties involved and addressing the underlying causes of the ongoing conflict. European institutions, in their steadfast commitment, express their support for Arab diplomacy and extend collaborative efforts throughout the region, with a particular focus on the Arab Gulf countries that have a vested interest in the Palestinian issue. Europeans advocate for creating space for Arab partners to play a crucial role in developing a comprehensive and lasting solution.

The absence of a clear political solution, notably the two-state plan, is raising significant concerns within the EU about the potential for a regional conflict. The repercussions on security, stability, terrorism, and irregular migration in the wider Mediterranean region are deeply troubling. The Arab Gulf nations are united in their focus on preventing any escalation of the conflict in the region. Their concerns also encompass the direct threats to international trade and maritime security, especially in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab el-Mandeb. They are apprehensive about the reemergence of Iran-backed militia activities and extremist group operations in Iraq and Syria. It is essential for European and Arab partners, particularly the Gulf countries, to collaborate on initiatives aimed at engaging with Iran and its allies with the primary goal of de-escalation and preventing further destabilization in the region.

The pressing crises in Ukraine and Gaza emphasize the need for Europeans to embrace a new approach that takes into account the crucial interests of the regional bloc. Furthermore, it is essential to seek collaborative strategies with close allies to minimize the adverse effects of these ongoing crises.