One characteristic shared today by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the European Union (EU) is a lack of ability to coordinate their foreign policies, forcing each to act in smaller “units” composed of several members of their respective unions. While internal mechanisms reveal efficient cooperating platforms on issues of common interests such as military training, anti-corruption, culture, and maritime security, the competing goals among countries push them to favor bilateral engagements over multilateral ones. It is in that vein that several countries of the GCC and of the EU are now deepening their ties outside of the unions’ frameworks and are basing them on short-term convergence of interests. Another common characteristic is the acknowledgement of the United States’ disengagement from the Gulf region and the strong hints of US willingness to reduce its presence and support to its EU partners.
Working toward a New Security Deal
With its history of mixed messages, the Trump administration has prompted a new security reality that has forced its partners to adapt and, in the end, to build new or reinforce existing cooperation. Whether the US disengagement from the Gulf region will actually take shape on the ground or not is secondary to the understanding in both unions that they should act as if the US were not part of maintaining its security anymore. Despite the intellectually thought-provoking element of the idea, the reality is that neither the GCC nor the EU would be capable of filling the gap at present or in the near future.
Despite the creation of the 2019 European-led Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH), a military surveillance mission politically supported by Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and France, the EU continues to be seen by the GCC members as “a weak strategic partner in the MENA region,” according to a report by the European Council on Foreign Relations. That one of the main European military powers, the United Kingdom, is in the process of leaving the union and has launched its own separate mission in the strait only a few months after the EU created EMASoH only being accentuated by that weakness.
Under President Obama, the main EU powers and the US were somehow aligned on how to deal with Iran and the appropriate framework for ending the sanctions, to the great dissatisfaction of the Arab partners. If the Arab partners saw in Obama’s “cold peace” an unbearable “treason,” they considered the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) a blank check for the Iranian authorities, for which they hold both the US and the EU responsible. With the Trump administration, EU and US policies in the region started to diverge significantly. While the Trump administration’s actions seem to confirm the US disengagement from the Gulf, it nevertheless ruined the regional political status quo between Iran on one side and the GCC on the other, to such an extent that it took dangerous military actions to remind all the stakeholders that any further provocations would be extremely costly (Abqaiq attack). Therefore, the warmongering narrative emerging from the GCC, blessed by Washington, together with the continuous Iranian regional interferences, almost nullified the fragile status quo.
On the one hand, in the eyes of the EU, the estrangement with the US mainly revolves around Iran, which several leading EU powers would like to trade with. On the other hand, in the eyes of the GCC, the US is an essential security partner, whereas for the EU, “in the era of Vision 2030 the GCC is primarily motivated by economic interests” Omar Al-Ubaydli explains.
In addition, the US and the EU both have different priorities in the region. As Visiting Fellow at RUSI Umar Karim puts it: “Under President Trump the US lens towards the GCC is framed by the personnel connections of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, with Mohammed bin Zayed and Mohammed bin Salman. EU itself has been more vocal on humanitarian issues within the GCC particularly the war in Yemen. Individual EU states have differed in this regard. The UK and France have advocated more engagement with GCC states and not conditionalizing their engagement with human rights records while at the same time engaging politically to end conflict like UK’s role in Yemen. Germany on other hand took a harder stand as it halted arm exports to Saudi Arabia.”
Old Policies, New Alliances
Among EU countries, the tension arises when it comes to arms sales, which demonstrates how economic competitiveness among members can derail any common foreign policy and how unable the EU countries are of shaping new policies toward the GCC. In effect, the GCC countries now see the EU simply as a market. Reciprocity has been the rule for decades as European capitals saw the GCC countries mainly as EU products consumers and more particularly, key clients of state-supported arms manufacturers. Despite the very mitigated economic results, that policy seems to remain unchanged even today. This arrangement is clearly portrayed by the fact that European countries are supporting foes in the GCC and the wider MENA for which business contracts appear to be among the main motives. For example, France was unable to deliver arms to Saudi Arabia for months because of Germany blocking arms exports following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul and the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Likewise, France and Italy find themselves in a tense relationship on the Libyan front due to Italy’s historical relationship with the country, and because of arm deals with Qatar.
Along these lines, several GCC and EU countries now find themselves in a short-term convergence of interests and the current situation in Libya together with the implications in the wider Mediterranean region have exposed these partnerships of convenience. The UAE, France, and Greece are battling Turkey, and the ministers of these countries together with Egypt have “condemned the illegal Turkish movements taking place in Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone and its territorial waters” in a joint statement in May 2020. This lends support to General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), while Italy supports the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli alongside Turkey and Qatar. However, in June 2020, Italy and Greece announced that they had reached an economic zones agreement, which disputes the Turkish-GNA agreement signed in November 2019. Embroiled in a severe battle of influence with Turkey, mainly triggered by the country’s support to Qatar in the GCC crisis, Saudi Arabia has also significantly strengthened its ties with Cyprus and Greece over the past years. Similarly, even if it said that French President Macron and Saudi Arabia Crown Prince MBS’s personal relationship is strained, both countries maintain an open channel.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia’s axis has demonstrated enduring cohesion over the past years, despite tensions over the Yemen war between the Saudi-supported Hadi government and the UAE-supported separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden. Nevertheless, their perceived bet on the Trump administration and continuous call for tougher actions against Iran, has led both countries to alienate the Democrats’ opposition and lose influence in the US power structures. This position has threatened the countries’ abilities to level influence particularly in the event of Trump failing to get reelected. The US disengagement from the region, or at a minimum its reduced presence, as portrayed by the lack of US response over the drone attack of Saudi oil facilities of Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019–strongly believed to have been carried out by Iran forces the UAE and Saudi Arabia to look toward the East. While the UAE has downgraded its public opposition toward Iran, even delivering medical supplies to Iran amid the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi Arabia has been strengthening its relationships with key Eastern powers such as China, India, South Korea, and Japan.
The Iran Question in a Time of US Retreat
From a GCC perspective, the EU has proved unable to contain Iran’s destabilizing regional policies and its willingness to save the JCPOA and implement the European special-purpose vehicle INSTEX is perceived as an act of aggression. While wary of avoiding US sanctions on European companies, the EU members of the JCPOA (France, UK, and Germany) are still reluctant to abandon the deal entirely. Economic prospects offered by the Iranian market aside, the EU’s perspective is its strong commitment to respect the “given word” at a time in which its weight in the region is declining. For the EU countries, respecting a deal promoted and signed by its members is a priority for the countries to stay relevant on the global stage, when strong competing powerhouses are emerging and destabilizing the former world order. Pressured by its Arab partners to abandon the deal, by Iran to respect its commitments, and by the US to fall in line, France, the UK, and Germany find themselves being sidelined by all.
The hope is for President Trump to draw a similar deal of his own making that would allow him to fulfill his personal ambition of recognition as an unavoidable “deal maker,” or being seen as a more EU-aligned president for November 2020. President Trump made recent comments inviting Iran to negotiate a deal now, rather than wait until after the elections. One was in a tweet on Navy veteran Michael White’s release by Iran in early June, in which the President stated: “Thank you to Iran. Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal. I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”. The other one was at a rally in Tulsa on June the 20th where he said that Iran should negotiate now otherwise it will “pay a much higher price”. These calls show Trump’s openness to reviving the negotiations with Iran and converge with his reluctance to militarily intervene in the region together with his willingness to disengage from it.
Less Ambitious Policies
The GCC and EU countries have understood that and have adjusted at the state level, rather than on multilateral platforms, yet are unable to fill the gap. Some regional issues remain non-negotiable to several stakeholders. For Saudi Arabia, the prospect of a retreat from Yemen is not foreseeable as the kingdom considers its own national security is at stake. To the UAE, the rift with Qatar is profound and the authorities will not agree to release the pressure on the neighboring nation. For Qatar, appearing to succumb to pressures and abandoning its independent foreign policy, together with its influence provided by Al Jazeera, would amount to becoming a satellite state. Even if the countries have been harshly hit by the economic effects of the coronavirus and the drop of oil prices, these issues remain their priorities for which they will continue to dedicate significant funding.
However, it is believed that more global interventions and diplomatic measures will be scrapped or downgraded due to the scarcity of financial resources. As a result, the GCC countries are greatly focused on diminishing their reliance over foreign products, developing their economies through diversification, cutting their need for foreign workers, and trying to enhance a regional stability for their markets to attract foreign investments. The GCC look to the East also forces the countries to agree to a far less aggressive approach to Tehran, who maintains strong ties with China and India. The EU could become a precious ally for the GCC countries in making sure that Iran still is being challenged on its weapons’ ambitions since the EU will not abandon the JCPOA, while the Asian powers are less committed to engaging on this issue. For the Mediterranean EU countries in particular, some GCC countries could be key partners in securing and promoting their interests. Yet in the long-term, the Mediterranean space is not a direct priority to either Saudi Arabia or the UAE, but only a timely issue on which they can exert pressure over Turkey and thus over Qatar. If the EU countries will not be able to fill in for the US, it will however be able to reinforce its position as a strong economic partner that can provide investments, tools, and know-how for economic diversification.
Quentin de Pimodan is an International Advisor for the Research Institute for Europeans and American Studies based in Greece. In 2014 he co-authored “The Khaleej Voice”, a six-book series documenting urban artists in the six GCC states. In 2016 he joined the international advisory board of the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS) where he published several analyses on the GCC with a particular focus on Saudi Arabia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.