The EU’s stakes and options in a changing Gulf region

HR/VP Blog – Today, I started a four-day trip to the Gulf region to visit Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. It is a dynamic region in the middle of a significant transformation. This gives us a chance to develop new forms of cooperation.


Several events have affected lately the dynamics of the region: the Abraham accords that marked the reconciliation between Israel and some Arab states, the end of the rift among some of the states in the Gulf ending the isolation of Qatar, the decision of the Biden administration to return to the Iran nuclear deal, and finally the situation in Afghanistan.

“Several events have affected lately the dynamics of the region.”

In addition, antagonism with Iran has overtaken the Palestinian question as a main alignment in the region. The current rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf in some ways is a departure from history. Indeed, Iran was among the first to recognise Israel in 1948, and Israel was its main regional partner for three decades until 1979, when Iranian leader Khomeini confiscated their embassy in Tehran to give it to the PLO.  Overcoming current rifts should also be seen in light of this big regional change, with divisions coming at a high price. 

“Divisions come at a high price.“

In parallel, China is increasing its role in the region. China will of course not give the Gulf states any security guarantees, but it is ready to step in where others leave space. Europe is embarking on the Green Deal, the US and other developed economies are less dependent on oil imports from the Gulf and the importance of the Chinese market is growing.

Russia is also aware of the opportunities this new situation opens up. It has also realigned its traditional alliances, improved its relations with Israel, and rebuilt its old alliance with Egypt. Foreign Minister Lavrov toured the region this spring. Russia, on the other hand, is still a competitor in the fossil fuel area, allied with Syria, and a close ally of Iran.

Also, Gulf countries are undergoing momentous domestic reforms. They all have “Visions”, of diversified, greener economies becoming less dependent on hydrocarbons, and more digitalised governments and societies.

At stake are of course contracts and investment opportunities – both in the Gulf countries for European companies, and in Europe for the Gulf sovereign wealth funds, who already own an impressive share of the EU economy.

“An objective of my visit is to see how we can build a stronger partnership with the Gulf states.”

Throughout my mandate, I have begun to discuss these transformations of the Gulf region and the broader Middle East with my interlocutors. The transformations are important for Europe, also because they affect the positioning and involvement of Gulf states in conflicts closer to home, such as Libya and Syria. And to be able to work together, we must understand their perspective.

This brings me to the second objective of the visit, which is to see how we can build a stronger partnership with the Gulf states. Here are a few themes and ideas that I will try to explore during the trip:

  • The EU will be a major market for renewable energy.
    Although the Gulf states remain dependent on oil and gas exports, they have understood that they will also need to transition to renewable energy production eventually. They have sun, wind and water in abundance, and the funding required. This renewable energy will need a market – and it is clear already that the EU will need to import large quantities of electricity and in due course also green hydrogen (especially if one looks at current electricity price increases).
  • Water security is a real issue in the Gulf, and we can help.
    Climate change in the Gulf is a reality with frequent temperatures over 50 degrees, accompanied by a depletion of fresh water resources. There is every reason to encourage cooperation in research and practical mitigation and adaptation measures to tackle related problems. In addition, cooperation in the field of civil protection will be useful for both sides, as the number of disasters is likely to increase.
  • The EU as soft security provider.
    It is less likely that that the EU will be involved in traditional “strategic” issues in the Gulf. However, there are a number of areas of “soft security” that are worth exploring, which could promote de-escalation and confidence building across the region. A first such area is maritime safety, i.e. measures to facilitate safe passage of commercial vessels. The EU could offer more technical support to organise and manage the busy shipping lanes in the Strait of Hormuz. Similarly, the EU could offer help with nuclear safety, tapping into the considerable expertise that exists within Euratom. We have for instance a CBRN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological) hub in the United Arab Emirates, a Centre of Excellence covering the region.
  • A pathway towards global responsibility.
    The EU is world leader in international humanitarian and development assistance, and in promoting respect for human rights. We strongly support international institutions such as the United Nations and multilateral solutions. Gulf states are increasingly interested in taking on global responsibilities and are ready to engage with us. The EU now has human rights dialogues with all Gulf states and we launched such a dialogue with Saudi Arabia this week. This is an area where there is much to gain for both sides from closer cooperation.
  • The EU as a model of peace and regional integration.
    Although it may seem trivial to us Europeans sometimes, peace and stability is not something the Gulf states are necessarily used to. The conflict in Yemen has been ravaging for seven years, causing a terrible humanitarian crisis. Saudi oil facilities have been attacked by missiles repeatedly in the past years and perceived Iranian actions and manipulation are a constant source of concern in several Gulf states. The idea that this confrontation can one day be overcome may feel distant at the moment, but so did many confrontations until they were eventually resolved. The CSCE/OSCE experience may be something to look at for the Gulf region. Also, the history of European integration per se is an interesting example of how economic cooperation can build trust and gradually lead to closer political integration.

These are some of the potential areas for cooperation and EU engagement, which form the backdrop for my trip to the Gulf. In the coming days, I will discuss with my interlocutors to see how we can build a common agenda, in particular also with view to the crisis in Afghanistan and how to engage with the new leaders, which I attempt to cover in my next blog post.

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