Europe’s role in Gulf and Middle East security
The European Council on Foreign Relations last week organized its annual Middle East and North Africa Forum. Held this year in Rome, the gathering focused on threats to regional security, shifting geopolitics and new openings for diplomacy.
On the Gulf, while there were hopeful signs with a renewed push for diplomacy by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries, participants were wary of bellicose rhetoric by Tehran’s new hardline government and the lack of progress in the Vienna talks. The fallout from Afghanistan has sparked questions about the US-European alliance and the need for “strategic autonomy.” The east Mediterranean conflict and Pandora Papers controversies raised serious questions as well.
Additionally, this first in-person post-COVID-19 meeting convened in the shadow of Europe’s energy crisis and rising voices against the primacy of EU law and Brussels’ perceived overreach.
In Rome, noisy anti-vaccine protesters marched down Via Veneto denouncing the new “Green Pass” required for public and private sector employees to enter their offices. The pass is already required to enter museums, theaters, gyms and indoor restaurants, as well as for trains, buses and airline travel. But, starting Oct. 15, the pass will be mandatory for workers to enter their offices.
Demonstrators trashed Via Veneto, Rome’s pride and shopping avenue, home to renowned restaurants, cafes and luxury hotels made famous by Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Scores of police officers and carabinieri were injured in clashes with the anti-vaccinators, some of whom were arrested including leaders and members of neo-fascist groups such as Nuclei Armati Rivoluzionari and Forza Nuova.
The ECFR was founded in 2007 by British author Mark Leonard and 50 European notables and has become the best known pan-European think tank and policy center. Leonard’s latest book, “The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict,” came out last month and laments the loss of hope that connecting the world would bring lasting peace. The ECFR is trying to reverse that trend through its regular conferences, including its annual MENA Forum.
This year’s event was remarkably successful thanks to the leadership of Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program, and his capable young team. They were able to bring together experts and policymakers from most countries in the region and to conduct lively and civil debates on very difficult issues, such as Gulf security threats, old and emerging.
Despite the stalled Vienna talks, Europeans are focused on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They remain the strongest and most active advocates of the deal. They do not see its shortcomings as fatal, nor do they see a need to involve the region now in those talks. Gulf participants shared that keen interest in nonproliferation, but disagreed on priorities and sequencing. The GCC has stressed the need to make the deal longer on time horizons (sunset clauses) and stronger on inspection and means of delivery, nuclear safety, among other amendments.
Shared concerns about Iran’s regional activities were voiced at the conference. In communications with Iran, the GCC has proposed ways to deescalate and build trust. The task of modifying Tehran’s conduct to be consistent with international norms may have become more difficult with the election of a hard-line president and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ tightening grip on power, making it imperative for the GCC and Europe to compare notes and coordinate their diplomatic approaches.
The current energy crisis in Europe underlines its reliance on imported supplies and the relevance of Gulf security to its energy security. The EU energy dependency rate now exceeds 60 percent on average and reaches up to 90 percent in some of its member states. Oil accounts for 66 percent of EU energy imports, followed by gas (27 percent). The Gulf region is home to about 50 percent of oil reserves, production and exports. If Gulf energy supplies were disrupted, energy supplies and prices would be affected around the world, including Europe.
Counterterrorism is a top priority for both, especially as the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may open a new front. Europe-GCC cooperation is also necessary for addressing regional crises that affect them both, including the Palestine conflict, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Red Sea maritime security is a rising concern for both sides; they need to coordinate their efforts regarding security of water passageways and shipping lanes, arms smuggling, human trafficking and organized crime.
The GCC region, notably Saudi Arabia, has reemphasized the need for good governance, thus opening a new avenue for international cooperation. This track involves several priority areas, including fighting corruption and enhancing the rule of law.
Trade and investment create jobs and stability throughout the region. Rising unemployment is behind much of the instability in “Arab Spring” countries, where youth joblessness can reach 50 percent. This situation calls for greater cooperation between the two regions to promote trade and investment. In addition, stronger economic cooperation can also provide the glue to enable other tracks of engagement.
Europe and the Gulf should steer clear of the US-China cold war if it happens, and perhaps help the two sides de-escalate.
Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
The ECFR MENA Forum highlighted many of these issues and there was overall consensus that the two regions could benefit significantly from a collective and bilateral dialogue on regional security. There may be different priorities, but a convergence of views may be found through regular dialogue. In particular, there is a need to reemphasize international norms of state conduct everywhere, including in the Gulf conflict; it would be useful for Europe to make that a strong talking point with Iran.
In 2019, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that the US and China were moving in the direction of a cold war amid increased disputes between the world's two largest economies and rising global tensions. He said then: “It is far from being too late for that, because we are still in the foothills of a cold war.”
Two years later, the two powers appear further apart. Europe and the Gulf should steer clear of that cold war if it happens, and perhaps help the two sides de-escalate.
- Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Twitter: @abuhamad1