A GCC-EU agenda for regional peace

A GCC-EU agenda for regional peace

Both organizations must push for a lasting solution to the Palestine question within the two-state option (File/AFP)
Both organizations must push for a lasting solution to the Palestine question within the two-state option (File/AFP)
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The Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU enjoy close political, economic and security relations. Hence, their interests converge over issues of regional security and cooperation in the Middle East and Europe. The GCC countries seek stability and peace in the Middle East, as it enhances their own security and development. On the other hand, conflict in the Middle East has serious security implications for the EU member states. Mutual gains motivate their shared interests over conflict resolution in Palestine and Ukraine, and stability and cooperation in the respective regions.

The two organizations have a lot in common in terms of their origin, evolution and purpose. Over the past eight decades, Europe has been through a miraculous progressive journey after experiencing the horrors of the Second World War. The EU today, despite the successive shocks of the past couple of decades, is a role model of regional integration in the world. Though born in response to a regional security threat, the GCC has also been able to put in place the essential features of economic cooperation over the last four decades. Both organizations seek peace and stability in the wider Middle East and Europe, as it serves their respective institutional goals for survival and growth.

Just like Germany in the EU, Saudi Arabia leads the GCC. It has been an anchor of stability and growth in the Gulf, the Middle East, the Muslim world and at the global level due to its distinctive national attributes of being the largest Gulf state and the richest Arab nation, a center of gravity in the Islamic world and a key stabilizing factor in the global energy sphere. In the past eight years, the Kingdom has undergone a huge socio-economic transformation under the pioneering Vision 2030 of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This strategic program asserts that the sustained prosperity of the Saudi people is an essential driver of the country’s foreign policy, as well as the prosperity and stability of the region.

In the complex landscape of the Middle East, there are forces that have a vested interest in subverting regional security and cooperation

Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri

The Saudi leadership understands that the window of opportunity to pull off the vision’s socioeconomic agenda depends upon regional stability. Hence, it has led the process of political reconciliation and economic development in the Gulf and the Middle East. In the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, the whole region was in deep turmoil, with deadly wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Reconciliation has helped to bring Syria back to the Arab League fold, heal factional strife in Iraq, reach a sustainable ceasefire and political path in Yemen, improve Turkish ties with the Gulf and Egypt, and overcome the unfortunate GCC rift with Qatar. Saudi Arabia has also normalized relations with Iran, despite the Iranian regime’s rampant use of militant proxies to destabilize Arab nations in the recent past.

Yet, in the complex landscape of the Middle East, there are forces that have a vested interest in subverting regional security and cooperation. The Hamas attack on Israel and the massive Israeli military response in Gaza have stalled the reconciliatory momentum in the Middle East, including the Abraham Accords. Israel has not lived up to its side of the bargain under these accords by continuing to build illegal Jewish-only settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. There was even talk of Saudi-Israeli normalization; however, that is conditional on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This rare chance has also become a casualty of the competing interests of militant proxies and ultranationalist elements amid the Gaza war.

Israel’s genocidal killing spree against hapless Palestinians has enraged public opinion across the world, especially among the Arab and Muslim people. This could, in turn, inflame extremist passions, producing more terrorists and their sympathizers. Neither the Gulf nations nor EU members were immune from the previous wave of terrorism in the region. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya also produced the worst refugee crisis in EU history. Now, with each passing day, the prospect of peace in Palestine is getting further away.

At least Saudi Arabia and the other GCC members realize the lurking danger of global inaction on Gaza. Hence, they have engaged in hectic diplomacy to push for an immediate ceasefire, humanitarian support and containment of the conflict. Iran has taken sides by supporting Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis. Despite this, there have been attempts at diplomacy, with Saudi and Iranian leaders engaging in talks to reduce tensions and sustain their normalization. Israel and Iran have engaged in open hostilities once, but thankfully shown restraint since. Meanwhile, the Kingdom and the GCC have not allowed the resurgence of the conflict to derail their modernization and integration plans. Other fruits of regional reconciliation also remain more or less intact.

Yet, the regional fallout of the Gaza war is clear from the Houthis’ attacks on international shipping in the Gulf and recurrent Hezbollah-Israeli military exchanges. The GCC and the EU must prevent this conflict from spreading beyond Gaza. Previously, they pursued an incremental approach to political change during the Iraq war and the Arab uprisings in 2011 and beyond. The EU also has a shared interest with the GCC in Vision 2030’s catalyzing impact on regional stability and cooperation. Like Saudi Arabia and the GCC, it supports the urgency of a ceasefire and humanitarian help in Gaza. It has long championed a two-state solution to the Palestine conflict, for which the Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative provides a crucial reference point for negotiations in the wake of the Gaza war.

Both organizations must push for a lasting solution to the Palestine question within the two-state option under the Arab Peace Initiative

Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri

Therefore, in its policy statements throughout this conflict, the Saudi leadership has consistently called for the revival of this comprehensive peace plan, which offers a win-win option for both parties, i.e., security for Israelis and a state for Palestinians. The Arab Peace Initiative is endorsed by the Arab League and the UN. What the Middle East Quartet (of which the EU is a member) has failed to achieve, this peace plan could do by producing a sustainable political bargain between Israel and Palestine, along with a genuine international consensus.

As for the war in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and the GCC have adopted a cautious and neutral stance, navigating a delicate balance between their relationships with global powers and regional interests. But the crown prince has clearly positioned himself as a key mediator to end this war through dialogue. He enjoys a personal rapport with both Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as the Kingdom is an important partner of Russia in the OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations.

Saudi Arabia last year hosted the largest gathering of more than 40 nations, but not including Russia, to explore diplomatic options to end the war. The Ukrainian leader visited Riyadh in February to follow up on this global initiative. Besides providing humanitarian support to Ukraine, Saudi Arabia has also partnered with Turkiye to facilitate a prisoner swap between Kyiv and Moscow, resulting in the release of Western nationals. Together with its Gulf and European allies, the Kingdom must continue the search for a viable settlement of this conflict, which will contribute to transregional security and economic cooperation.

The GCC and the EU have a long-standing relationship based on a cooperation agreement signed in 1988. The two sides meet annually to discuss issues and best practices and oversee its progress. They also have a strategic partnership that includes regular dialogues on cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, climate change, energy, environment and research. GCC-EU relations have been strengthened over the years, with the EU being the second-largest trading partner of the GCC and an important source of investment for Gulf countries. The relations have also been marked by a number of high-level visits and meetings, including the 27th GCC-EU Joint Council and Ministerial Meeting held in Oman last October.

The GCC and the EU also have a strong partnership based on shared interests in regional security. Previously, they collaborated on diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, as well as on counterterrorism initiatives against extremist groups like Daesh and Al-Qaeda. Currently, as the war in Gaza threatens to possibly refuel another wave of extremism, they must gear up their security cooperation to keep the consequences of renewed Middle Eastern conflict beyond their frontiers. More importantly, both organizations must push for a lasting solution to the Palestine question within the two-state option under the Arab Peace Initiative. The US’ carte blanche to the state of Israel is the key barrier to its implementation. The EU must prevail over Washington in this respect.

Finally, through its Belt and Road Initiative, China has taken the lead by massively investing in Saudi infrastructure development, including in transport networks, green energy projects, technology parks and industrial zones. The EU is yet to fully harness the potential rewards of this development spree under Vision 2030. It is true that, under this vision, the Kingdom seeks to become a global economic hub by reorienting its oil economy toward the productive sectors of technology, green energy, services and tourism. However, as argued before, Vision 2030’s real value lies beyond Saudi economic development as a catalyst for regional security and cooperation.

  • Dr. Ali Awadh Asseri served as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Pakistan from 2001 to 2009 and received Pakistan’s highest civilian award, Hilal-e-Pakistan, for his services in promoting the Saudi-Pakistan relationship. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Beirut Arab University and authored the book “Combating Terrorism: Saudi Arabia’s Role in the War on Terror” (Oxford, 2009). He is a member of the Board of Trustees at RASANAH, the International Institute for Iranian Studies, Riyadh.
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