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Europe’s Middle Powers Utilize Arms Sales for Strategic Gains in the Gulf Region

Recognizing the strategic importance of the Gulf region, Italy took a step in April to reclaim its dwindling influence by decisively lifting its arms embargo on the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The prior decision to halt these sales in 2021 imposed significant constraints on Italy. Notably, the UAE retaliated against this move by restricting Rome’s access to its airspace, critically impairing Italy’s ability to conduct evacuation operations for civilians and diplomats from Afghanistan. Furthermore, Italy was instructed by Abu Dhabi to withdraw its forces from its military base in the UAE.

Italy’s diplomatic maneuvers to bolster its ties with the UAE indicate its perceived strategic necessity to collaborate with Abu Dhabi to accomplish its geopolitical objectives in critical regions such as Libya and the Horn of Africa. The UAE’s substantial network in these regions makes it an indispensable ally. Moreover, this cooperation allows Italy to synchronize its strategies with its Indo-Pacific partners, including India.

The shifting dynamics of Italy’s approach provide a clear illustration of the broader European trend, where countries often classified as ‘middle powers’ regard arms sales as a crucial tool for forging alliances with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and asserting their influence across the wider Middle East region. This trend is particularly pronounced as European countries persistently strive to engage with the Gulf one-to-one. At the same time, the European Union continues to grapple with establishing a collective, multilateral stance.

The Role of Arms Sales in Europe’s Strategy in the Gulf

In 2022, France, Italy, and the UK emerged as prominent global arms exporters, holding the second, fifth, and sixth ranks, respectively, per the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. These statistics highlight their substantial role in the global arms market and underscore the strategic significance of these exports. France, for example, has strong arms trade ties with the Indo-Pacific region and Oceania, while the UK primarily focuses on Saudi Arabia and other GCC states such as Oman and Qatar. Despite its comparatively more minor arms trade with the Gulf, Italy’s resumption of  its arms exports signaled a clear shift towards upgrading ties with the GCC.

A standard critique of this dynamic is that it represents a “profit over people” policy, suggesting that governments prioritize economic gain over human welfare. It’s undeniable that commercial benefits play a significant role in these transactions. The UK, for instance, leverages arms sales primarily for economic advancement but also to solidify political alliances, embodying a model of “utilitarian commercialism.”

However, such critiques often need to grasp these policies’ nuanced motivations. France and Italy, for example, emphasize the protection of their national industries and autonomy. This trend has been particularly evident in Italy under Giorgia Meloni’s government, which has escalated its commitment to this approach following protests from defense manufacturers about revenue losses, despite allegations of human rights violations in Yemen.

Similarly, other European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium trade arms with the Gulf. However, their motivations may not be as explicitly geared toward broader regional objectives.

The economic benefits of these relations extend beyond the arms trade. Gulf states have made significant investments in various sectors within the UK, such as finance, real estate, energy, technology, and education. Italy, in particular, has been proactively seeking investment from wealthy Gulf partners like the UAE and Qatar. This strategy has become increasingly relevant as Italy reassesses its ties with China. Moreover, the importance of relations with the Gulf has been amplified by Europe’s ambitions to diversify energy sources away from Russia, signaling these partnerships’ multi-faceted and strategic nature.

Engagement for Regional Security

However, bilateral economic interests are merely one aspect of the broader equation. The geographical significance of the Gulf states necessitates European countries to foster relationships with the region. Even during the decline of Britain as a global power, its post-war defense policy hinged on maintaining a presence in the Gulf and ensuring the safety of crucial shipping lanes. Today, the UK aims to leverage its relationships in the Gulf to project power in the wider region and respond to possible crises situations.

On June 5, a British Royal Navy ship, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, operated from its naval base in Bahrain to deter Iranian vessels reportedly ‘harassing’ commercial ships. Similarly, France has joined forces with the U.S. and UK to counter Iranian threats, using its naval base in Abu Dhabi as a strategic platform.

Moreover, the UK and France have capitalized on their bases in the Gulf to bolster their naval operations in the Indo-Pacific region. This has been particularly evident as London supports the U.S.-led efforts to ‘contain’ China, while France seeks to uphold its interests as a ‘resident power’ in the Indo-Pacific.

For European middle powers keen on engaging with the Arab region, accessing the area through the Gulf states is deemed indispensable. This approach has gained traction as Gulf states, particularly the UAE and Saudi Arabia, adopted proactive foreign policies after the Arab Spring revolutions. Recognizing these Gulf states as influential power brokers is critical to effective engagement, given their established security, economic, and diplomatic networks.

In the backdrop of the Yemen war, the UK and France’s arms sales have often led to muted reactions to the military campaigns led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with criticism predominantly directed at Iran’s role in the conflict. The UK’s close ties with Riyadh even facilitated British military advisors to assist in guiding Riyadh’s bombing campaign against Houthi targets. As the Yemen war wanes, future peace-building initiatives may require Saudi Arabia’s involvement, given its soft power and the backing of Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

A similar trend is evident in Libya, where Paris cooperated closely with the UAE when their policies aligned in supporting Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Some analysts have even suggested that Abu Dhabi had guided Paris’ Libya policy at that time, given the support Paris lent to Haftar. Considering Italy’s efforts to stabilize post-war Libya and manage migration across the Mediterranean, establishing ties with Abu Dhabi may be necessary for Rome to contribute to a sustainable political resolution.

European Leverage in Bilateral Arms Negotiations Eroded

Competition for arms sales is undoubtedly high when it comes to the Gulf region, which further limits the leverage of European countries acting bilaterally. In May, the UAE cancelled a past deal with Airbus to acquire 12 French Caracal helicopters, though it will still proceed with purchasing 80 Rafale warplanes and various missiles from Paris. This move not only reflects the UAE’s desire to develop its domestic production capabilities but also the wide choice it has for arms imports, including from countries such as the U.S., Russia, South Korea, and Israel.

The Gulf states obviously positioned themselves and diversified partnerships with a wide array of middle and great powers. Moreover, the European Union struggled to provide a unified front in engaging with the region, notably evident in its failures to secure a free trade agreement (FTA) with the GCC in 2008. While post-Brexit Britain currently aims to become the first European nation to secure an FTA with the GCC, it has been compelled to overlook human rights concerns raised by critics within the UK regarding this pursuit.

Ultimately, these individual national interests among European states have further augmented the leverage wielded by the Gulf states. Although efforts to enhance cooperation between the EU and GCC have intensified, particularly in light of the economic fallout from the war in Ukraine, this further renders the Gulf states as important partners and means past disagreements between the EU and the GCC over human rights have faded.

While any prospect of increased multilateralism within the EU remains distant, the failure to achieve it has unquestionably resulted in weapons sellers conceding leverage to GCC states, while preventing Europe from gaining substantial leverage over the Gulf. Thus, while arms sales are a crucial aspect of Europe’s engagement with the Gulf, they also expose the limitations and challenges of its current strategies.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: GCC

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Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a researcher and journalist focusing on geopolitics and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly related to the Gulf. He has worked with Al Sharq Forum, The New Arab, Middle East Eye, Al Monitor, Carnegie Endowment’s Sada journal, and many other outlets.


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