Event Reports

EU-GCC Relations

by Fabian Blumberg

The Path towards a New Relationship

On the 14th of October 2019, the Regional Programme Gulf States hosted a workshop in Brussels on the relations between the European Union (EU) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Attended by experts, scholars and officials from Gulf States, Europe and the US, this workshop took place under Chatham House Rules. In the following, we summarize the debate and main outcomes.

Taking stock of past relations, the participants argued that relations between the EU and GCC have waned over the years. According to them, the GCC states felt affronted that the EU did not include them as part of their Southern Neighbourhood initiatives. The GCC felt they were not being treated on equal footing, and therefore, they stopped Free Trade Agreement (FTA) negotiations in 2008. The participants argued that both sides shared the blame for the breakdown of the FTA talks and that the expectations were too high. They also advised that an easy comparison of the GCC and EU as regional bodies should be avoided because, in part, the bureaucracies and the overall objectives differ too much. And also, because the economies differ: the EU possesses already a diversified economy while the GCC countries are still rely on oil despite their preparation for the post oil economy.

The participants also discussed the changing political landscape in the Gulf region. They noted the increasing role of China and Russia in the region due to lack of confidence in the US. The disagreement on sticking with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka as Iran’s nuclear deal, some participants argued, have divided the US and EU. While Europe agrees with the US about the negative role Iran plays in the MENA region, it also argues that there is need for a new security arrangement in the Gulf region that includes Iran. In contrast, the Gulf States’ priority is not a new security arrangement; rather, to contain Iran and to address its expansionist policies that it conducts through its regional proxies. As such, the JCPOA is a key issue of disagreement between the EU and GCC countries. Further, the GCC believes, according to participants from the Gulf region, that Europe is getting too close to Iran at the expense of its relationship with GCC states.

The participants also discussed the role of the EU in “Gulf crisis.” Some participants suggested that the EU could play the role of a mediator between the different parties in the crisis. But others questioned the willingness of the EU to play this role. They argued that Europe has left the Gulf region for the US since long time as evident by its absence from the security arrangements in the region and the lack of research centers on the Gulf States in their countries, which contributed to a lack of knowledge and understanding to the region.

The participants also examined the reform economic programs in the Gulf States, especially, they endeavour to diversify their economy. In this regard, the participants observed that the oil wealth and the young populations of the Gulf States were two important factors that could lead to the success of these reform programs. The failure of economic reforms, the participants argued, could lead to disappointment and instability in the region because much of the stability nowadays results from the promises of reform.

The economic reforms in the Gulf States, the participants argued, is also an opportunity for the EU to engage with the Gulf States. They noted, for example, that the  education and training could one of the main areas of cooperation between the GCC and EU. Further, they noted that when highly educated young people return from their studies abroad to the Gulf States, they could contribute to strengthening the relations between EU and GCC states. However, the participants observed that both the GCC and EU did not prioritized so far to advance their relations.

At the end of the discussion, while all the participants agreed that the EU must increase its presence in the Gulf region, they argued for the need of a more realistic approach to the EU-GCC relations. This could be done, according to many participants by strengthening the work of the EU delegations that already exist in Gulf States, increasing the number of the EU joint delegations to the Gulf region, and by focusing on issues of mutual interest like economy, education and training where there is a potential for collaboration. The participants also advised that the GCC States also have to define what they want from Europe.

Contact Person

Fabian Blumberg

Fabian Blumberg bild

Head of Gulf States Programme