A growing European interest for EU-GCC relations

The state of play of EU relations with its Partners of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was being discussed on Tuesday 26 October at the European Parliament, during a Public Hearing organised by the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs (AFET), in association with the Parliamentary Committee for International Trade (INTA). Experts on EU-Gulf relations had been invited to discuss, inform and insist upon the strategic importance of strengthened EU-GCC ties for the future. The large turnout, which gathered EU officials, the Ambassadors of Kuwait and the GCC, as well as NGO representatives and journalists, undoubtedly suggests that European interest towards the Gulf may well be building up speed.

Clearly, the strategic importance of the Gulf region cannot be underestimated. Home to 60% of all known oil reserves, Gulf States account for a third of global oil production and remain the main stabilizing forces on the international oil market. Nevertheless, with the breakthrough of new players on the international scene, competition over the Gulf’s natural resources has never been so fierce. With Asian and Latin American investors entering the region, the EU will not be able to rely on its historical influence in the region for long if it is to secure future access to the natural resources of the Gulf.

The same holds for other economic fields, such as high technology and security, which Gulf States have been eager to exploit as a means of diversifying their oil-dependent economies. Countries of the GCC have become major hubs for high tech development and other futuristic projects (Dubai is a prime example) and are drawing increasing attention from countries across Asia, Latin America and even Africa. If Europe is to avoid being considered the Old Continent falling behind on the international business scene, opportunities to build a strengthened partnership with GCC states must be taken sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the geo-strategic location of GCC States calls for a strategic partnership between the EU and countries of the Gulf. GCC countries are close neighbors to some of the world’s major hotspots, such as Iran, Yemen, Iraq and Pakistan. Thus, the location and interaction of GCC countries in the region are important components for potentially building stronger strategic ties between the EU and the Gulf region for the future.

Let us not forget also that an improved EU-GCC partnership will greatly benefit GCC states themselves. The GCC remains a relatively new and fragile regional structure, made up of countries undergoing major economic and political reforms. The EU, through its experience of regional integration and its apparent solidity as a regional structure, will prove a valuable regional partner for the GCC in its efforts to consolidate itself as a credible regional entity. Moreover, the strengthening of ties with the EU will help GCC states towards greater economic diversification (see Edito on Economic Cities Saudi Arabia). Finally, greater collaboration, cooperation and mutual understanding may help gradually soothe the many negative stereotypes often pinned to the region.

With all these criteria in mind, it is in the EU’s best interest to develop its relations with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As the speakers unanimously agreed, it is time to look beyond the stuttering Free Trade Agreement plans, which are impeding the progress of this mutually-beneficial relationship. Why not start by holding regular EU-GCC Summits to allow both parties to exchange, collaborate and, most of all, get to know one another? How can the next EU-GCC Joint Council, to be held in the United Arab Emirates in 2011, be used to promote an EU-GCC strategic partnership? These suggestions, which were raised by the different speakers, may not see the light of day just yet, but will provide, if nothing else, food for thought for what seems to be growing crowd interested in moving forward with the Gulf.

Andrew Bower