The Gulf region has become an increasingly volatile region in the last 10-15 years. Donald Trump’s refusal of the Iran Nuclear Deal which resulted in its factual breakdown, China’s increased engagement in the Middle East through its Belt and Road Initiative, and the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Yemen should be a wake-up call for the EU to take more responsibility in the Arabian Peninsula. In an increasingly challenging international and regional environment, the EU needs to deepen its engagement with stable partners in the Gulf in order to promote sustainable development in the broader Middle East. Amid a fragile geopolitical region, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates play a crucial role in solving regional conflicts.
The EU's relationship today with the Arab Gulf countries tends to be more commercial and less political. While the trade volume between the two sides has increased progressively since the 1990s, political and diplomatic ties have been relatively modest and limited in scope. Thus, unsurprisingly, the European Union does not play any important role in securing arrangements in the region. However, the region itself represents Europe’s extended neighbourhood and, as such, we have vital security interests in the region.
Although the recent election of Joe Biden has been overwhelmingly assessed as positive for the EU, the fundamental geostrategic attention of the US will undoubtedly focus more and more on China, with implications for both the EU and the broader Middle East. It cannot be in Europe’s interest to see either Russia or China possibly deepen their involvement in the Gulf or fill vacuums that might arise out of a gradual US withdrawal. The failed nuclear agreement with Iran has allowed Teheran to destabilise the region, creating another area of a serious security concern.
“With Europe having fundamental interests in areas of political and economic relations, energy, and security, I consider the Gulf States - and especially the Kingdom of Bahrain - to be a strategic partner”
Europe’s biggest flaw is the lack of knowledge and expertise on the Gulf States that contributes to misperceptions. Stereotypes of the Middle East as a source of irregular migration and religious extremism sometimes outshine major economic and social changes these countries have undergone.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is a fitting example. In recent years, the country has taken up a pioneering role in promoting women’s role in politics and society. As a result, women in top political and economic positions are no longer an exception in Bahrain. The Council of Representatives has elected its first female speaker after the 2018 elections, and the EU Ambassador’s position is occupied by a woman too. In the foreign policy domain, Bahrain has taken up a very constructive role by signing a normalisation agreement with Israel and substantially contributes to the fight against ISIS.
With Europe having fundamental interests in areas of political and economic relations, energy, and security, I consider the Gulf States - and especially the Kingdom of Bahrain - to be a strategic partner. Therefore, the European Union needs to deepen the partnership by establishing a comprehensive policy approach towards the Gulf region in general and Bahrain in particular. EU Member States have often developed an independent foreign policy, where a few countries have tried to cultivate a privileged relationship with individual GCC countries. The mismatch between the EU Member States’ bilateral foreign policies towards the Gulf and the multilateral EU-GCC cooperation framework has often weakened the position of EU institutions because EU Member States have continued to pursue their interests, even going against EU policies.
Although the Common Foreign and Security Policy continues to be the prerogative of the Member States, the European Parliament has managed to extend its influence in foreign policy issues in recent years, particularly because of its activities in democratisation and human rights matters. This is an achievement associated with responsibility. Now it is in the hand of the Parliament and its delegations to contribute to a more intensive institutional exchange where it is possible and necessary.
“What makes me feel optimistic is that there has never been a more intensive and constructive dialogue in diplomatic relations between Bahrain and the EU than now”
This is exactly what the European Parliament’s Bahrain Friendship Group has lately done. Both sides have stepped up their diplomatic efforts. In early December, members of the Council of Representatives of Bahrain and the European Parliament met for the first time. This virtual web conference between both legislative bodies has certainly represented a milestone for our partnership.
As the Chair of the European Parliament’s Bahrain Friendship Group, I advocate an open security, economic, and cultural dialogue. The EU - GCC cooperation agreement from 1988 does not constitute an appropriate institutional framework between our regions considering the challenges we face together. I see enormous potential for more coordinated collaboration in the aforementioned policy areas. What makes me feel optimistic is that there has never been a more intensive and constructive dialogue in diplomatic relations between Bahrain and the EU than now.