Eu-gulf relations: Looking Beyond the Neighbourhood Andrew Bower



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EU-Gulf relations: Looking Beyond the Neighbourhood


Andrew Bower©

Senior Academic Assistant, College of Europe; Visiting Research Fellow, King’s College London

The European Union, like its member countries before it, strongly believes in the centrality of its neighbouring region in the making of its foreign policy and its “existing commitment to its relationship with the countries of the Mediterranean and the Middle East and its long standing engagement with the challenges confronting them”.1 Of central significance to European engagement in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region, the ENP has, since its creation in 2004, spearheaded EU policies towards its immediate southern neighbourhood as a means to “promote a ring of well-governed countries”.2

Keen to maintain a stable and secure neighbourhood vital to Europe’s own stability , the European Commission has also stressed the need to go a step further to “look beyond the Union’s immediate neighbourhood” to the many neighbours of its own neighbourhood, to identify the various regional challenges and opportunities therein, and the potential for further regional cooperation.3 An international conference organised by the College of Europe in November 2012 sought to shed light on the relatively unexplored concept of ‘neighbours of the EU neighbours’. This analysis, which draws upon my own presentation given at the conference4, focuses on the countries of the Arabian Peninsula as one of the three central regions of the EU’s greater neighbourhood looked at during the two-day conference.5

The countries of the Arabian Peninsula, also referred to as the Gulf countries comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates - all of which form the Gulf Cooperation Council - and Yemen, have proven to be central actors in the MENA region and influential players in international affairs, through their heavy-weight status in energy relations, their overall economic presence on world markets, and their impact on the stability of the region.



Economic giants

With steadily increasing oil prices, countries of the Gulf have been gifted with unprecedented opportunities to expand their foreign investments across a variety of sectors (tourism; real estate; finance; etc.). The liquidities resulting from massive oil revenues have led to a Gulf “investment blitz” (averaging $140 billion between 2004-2007) on international markets.6 These investments have been spearheaded for the past decades by Sovereign Wealth Funds (SWF) – government ownership instruments made up of assets with surplus foreign exchange – characteristic of the huge financial powers of the oil-rich monarchies.7 Through these important investment vehicles, countries of the Gulf have sought to strengthen and expand their presence on international markets by moving away from their domestic “comfort zone”.8 With the tightening of European and American markets, Gulf SWF have turned to investments in other Arab countries of the MENA region in which relationships have been strengthened in the current post-Arab Spring period.9 According to K.R. Tabari, Vice-Chairman of a major Abu Dhabi investment firm, countries of the region can no longer rely on European investments in this period of crisis and should rather “look inward [regionally] for solutions”.10

Morocco, a country traditionally accustomed at placing most of its eggs in the European basket, has been recalibrating its engagement regionally as a result of western economic difficulties and instability across its borders (Libya, Tunisia). While Morocco remains a country with international ambitions, it has been increasingly including the GCC in its political and economic developments.11 Morocco has, in fact, become a major recipient of Gulf investments both through SWF and private channels, having recently concluded a new Strategic Partnership with the GCC providing for over $5billion over the next five years, focusing on the sectors of renewable energy, tourism, industry and real estate.12 Complementary to Moroccan interests in attracting Gulf investments, monarchies in the Gulf value the political significance of Morocco’s ability to preserve its stable monarchy in a region shock waved by popular revolts. With instability plaguing the region as a whole, Gulf monarchs have chosen to strengthen win-win relationships using their economic might. If nothing else, this may well “make political sense all around”.13

Anchors for regional stability

Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have stepped up their foreign policy engagement by playing increasingly active roles in crises plaguing the MENA region.14 At a sub-regional level, the GCC as an organisation has sought to play a mediating role in internal and local conflicts. It Commission for the Settlement of Disputes has shown some positive results as a regional mediating instrument: since 1981, the GCC has played a – limited – mediating role in a handful of conflicts such as its plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the early 1980s and its mediation of the Iraqi-Iranian dispute over ownership of the Shatt-al-Arab passage.15 However, Gulf mediation in regional conflicts has, by and large, proven very limited at the sub-regional level of the GCC due, in part, to struggling internal cohesion and cooperation. Substantive impact of Gulf intervention in crisis resolution and mediation has resulted primarily from the intervention of individual Gulf states, at best under the informal clout of the GCC.16 Qatar offers a telling illustration.

Qatar’s assertion of unilateral and independent foreign policy objectives in the region marks evolving regional balance of power in which Qatar and other Gulf monarchies are carving out their role as regional mediators, frequently upstaging traditional Western actors.17 The mediating role of Qatar in brokering a peace deal in the Lebanese conflict of 2008 is one example. Through an unorthodox and contested “policy of favoring everyone and no one” in conflict mediation, Qatar succeeded in resolving an 18-month Lebanese political crisis where every other external mediator had failed.18 Most recently, in the recent Libyan campaign of 2012, Qatar astonished many an observer by its degree of involvement alongside NATO forces through its early recognition and support of the Transitional National Council and military contributions to the allied military forces.19

Increasingly active Gulf countries, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in regional conflict mediation have proven their worth in a region plagued by divisions and crises. From Morocco to Yemen, from Lebanon to Libya, Gulf mediators have joined the bargaining tables, with varying success. Such mediating enthusiasm has been met with mixed feelings amongst Western actors, owing them a reputation of “independent-minded mediators who will cozy up to anyone … in pursuit of leverage at the bargaining table”.20 Nevertheless, these oil-rich monarchies have proven their commitment to work towards greater stability in its neighbouring region. The EU surely cannot continue its engagement in its own southern neighbourhood regardless of such changing geopolitical realities.



A need to adapt

European involvement with the countries of the Arabian Peninsula has, over the decades, been one of “low intensity”.21 The oil crisis of 1973 which shed light on the geopolitical importance of the region, brought the region to the attention of the countries of the European Economic Community – until then, only the United Kingdom, who only joined the European Economic Community in 1973, had been engaging in substantive relations with the region.22 The Euro-Arab Dialogue, created in 1973 as a forum for discussion between the European Community and the states of the Arab League, marked a first framework for relations between the European Community and countries of the Arabian Peninsula.23 Nevertheless, relations of the European Community with the Arabian Peninsula remained low key with the failure of the Euro-Arab Dialogue to gain momentum (blocked following the Gulf crises in 1990) and the Community Member states’ prioritisation of engagement with the countries of the Peninsula through bilateral channels around economic negotiations related to the military, infrastructure and trade. Only recently has the EU as an entity pursued relations with countries of the region through long-term contractual commitments with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.24 In 1989, the European Economic Community and the GCC concluded a Cooperation Agreement which would establish the contractual basis of EU-Gulf relations still in place today.25

However, the changing realities in the MENA region and the growing role played by Gulf countries on this regional scene should be met with European efforts to adapt. Improving the coordination of the various instruments in place to seek greater coherence in the EU’s approach to the region, taking into account the importance and relevance of countries of the Arabian Peninsula, is of particular importance.26 The adoption in 2004 of the EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East marked a first step in shifting European attention towards geopolitical trends in the region. 27 This document referred to a new Mediterranean and Middle Eastern framework including Gulf countries, while committing the EU to advancing a partnership with the countries of the Gulf region; its Principles of Action read: “The Strategic Partnership will focus on the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, including the countries of the GCC, Yemen, Iraq and Iran”.28

European support for the inclusion of countries of the Arabian Peninsula allowing for greater coherence of European policies and financial instruments within a broader regional framework remains meager, to say the least. Most crucially, many have opposed any overburdening of existing frameworks and instruments in the MENA region; others fear embarking on the thorny road to greater regionalism previously ventured down by the Bush Administration with its Greater Middle East Initiative of 2004.29 Furthermore, suspicions over the underlying objectives of Gulf countries’ interventions seeking to pursue own national agendas, militarily like economically, remain rife amongst Western powers.30



A geopolitical rethinking of EU policies in its neighbouring MENA region and in its ensuing relations with the Gulf thus seems necessary. The growing relevance of the growing role played by Gulf states in the MENA region until recently a stronghold of EU neighbourhood policy, sheds light on the changing regional realities to which the EU and its Member States will have to adapt. In order to do efficiently and, consequently, to ensure the relevance and effectiveness of its neighbourhood policy, the EU must look beyond its immediate vicinity to the neighbours of the EU’s neighbours and seek to tackle the challenges herein.

Copyright: © Andrew Bower

This analysis draws upon a chapter by the same author in the forthcoming publication: A. Bower, R. Métais, “State of Play: The Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran and the ENP”, in S. Gstöhl, E. Lannon (eds.) The Neighbours of the European Union’s Neighbours: Diplomatic and Geopolitical Dimensions beyond the European Neighbourhood Policy, London, Ashgate, forthcoming

This contribution remains exclusive property of the author and cannot be reproduced for commercial use without prior approval of the author.

1This contribution is exclusive property of the author and cannot be reproduced for commercial use without prior approval by the author.
 Council of the European Union, “Final Report on an EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East”, June 2004, p.1.

2 European Commission, “Security Strategy: A Secure Europe in a Better World”, Brussels, 12 December 2003, p.8.

3 Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on strengthening the European Neighbourhood Policy, Brussels, 4 December 2006 COM(2006)726 final, p. 11.

4 This analysis draws upon a chapter by the same author in the forthcoming publication: A. Bower, R. Métais, “State of Play: The Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran and the ENP”, in S. Gstöhl, E. Lannon (eds.) The Neighbours of the European Union’s Neighbours: Diplomatic and Geopolitical Dimensions beyond the European Neighbourhood Policy, London, Ashgate, forthcoming

5 Other regions covered included Central Asia and the Horn of Africa/Sahel.

6 N. Raphaeli, B. Gersten, “Sovereign Wealth Funds: Investment Vehicles for the Persian Gulf Countries”, Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2008, p.46

7 S. Bazoobandi, Political Economy of the Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds. A Case Study of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, 2012, p.1

8 “Reuters Summit – Gulf firms look to emerging markets for growth”, Reuters, 22 November 2012

9 Ibid

10 S. Rahman, “Middle East needs $4.3 billion investment”, Gulf News, 04 February 2013

11 M. Peel, “Morocco plays the ‘King’s club’ card’, Financial Times, 22 October 2012

12 G. Klein, “Morocco eyes Gulf investments to offset slowdown”, AFP, 26 October 2012

13 M. Peel, op.cit.

14 A. Echagüe, “Don’t Forget the Gulf”, Policy Brief, no. 98, Madrid, FRIDE, October 2011, p. 3.

15 M. Pinfari, “Nothing but Failure? The Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council as Mediators in Middle Eastern Politics”, Regional and Global Axes of Conflict – Working Paper no.45, London, Crisis States Research Centre, March 2009, p.16

16 Ibid, p.17

17 A. Gulbrandsen, Bridging the Gulf: Qatari business diplomacy and conflict mediation, New York, Georgetown University, 2012

18 R. Worth, “Qatar, Playing all Sides, Is a Nonstop Mediator”, New York Times, 09 July 2008

19 T. Karon, “Does Qatar Share the West’s Agenda in Libya?”, Time World, 05 October 2011

20 R. Worth, op.cit.

21 “The EU and the GCC – A New Partnership”, Policy Paper RSC, no. 02/7, Florence, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, 2002, p.3

22 Bichara Khader, “Is there a role for Europe in Gulf security?”, GCC-EU Research Bulletin, no. 3, 2005, p.10

23 “Euro-Arab Dialogue”, MEDEA Institute Information Sheet, retrieved on 12 November 2012, http://www.medea.be/en/themes/euro-mediterranean-cooperation/euro-arab-dialogue/

24 Ana Echagüe, “The Gulf Cooperation Council: The Challenges of Security”, in R. Youngs (ed.), The European Union and Democracy Promotion: A Critical Global Assessment, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010, p.136

25 Council of the European Union, “Cooperation Agreement between the European Economic Community and the countries parties of the Charter of the Cooperation Council of the Arab States of the Gulf”, Official Journal L 054, 25 February 1989, p. 03

26 J. Solana, Romano Prodi & Christopher Patten, “Strengthening the EU’s partnership with the Arab World”, Letter addressed to the President of the Council of the European Union, 9 December 2003, p. 2.

27 European Council, “EU Strategic Partnership with the Mediterranean and the Middle East”, Final Report, June 2004,

28 Ibid [emphasis added]

29 A. Echagüe, “The Gulf Cooperation Council: The Challenges of Security”, in R. Youngs (ed.), The European Union and Democracy Promotion: A Critical Global Assessment, Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 2010, p. 137.

30 T. Karon, “Does Qatar Share the West’s Agenda in Libya”, World Time, 05 October 2011



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