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Time to Reset the EU’s Relationship to the Arab Gulf

BY Piercamillo Falasca



Time to Reset the EU’s Relationship to the Arab Gulf

The post-pandemic world will likely be very different front the “old normal,” and not only because people will interact while cloaked in medical masks and obsessively wash our hands. Geopolitical tensions and the tendency towards a re-shoring of production from abroad — re: from China and East Asia — will significantly influence the European economy. The European Union is being asked to rethink and expand its role as a pivotal player for a new balance in the relations between Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

An important chapter of this long-overdue strategy could be the opening of a new dialogue with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries for the establishment of a free trade agreement. There are many reasons and mutual interests for this advancement. The EU is the first importer among the GCC states, which is also the EU’s forth largest export market. The two organisations already cooperate through a joint council and a joint cooperation committee on trade and investment issues, as well as energy and environment matters, but the negotiations for a free trade agreement were interrupted twelve years ago.

From a European perspective, there are several reasons to rekindle trade negotiations:

  1.  to support the Gulf countries on their path towards economic diversification and away from hydrocarbons dependent sectors
  2.  to promote more climate-friendly trade consistent with the environmental agenda of the European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen
  3.  to enhance the level of transparency and information in the financial markets and in the fiscal systems
  4. to strengthen the political ties between the two proximate regions and therefore increase cooperation to face mutual security challenges ranging from the fight against terrorism to migration management

As the Gulf countries have grown accustom to balancing the interests — and perspectives — of the US, Europe and the rest of the proverbial West, on the the one hand, and China, India, Russia and the rest of the proverbial East, on the other, European policy-makers should add a fifth reason for deepening political and economic relations with the Gulf, which is able to eclipse the costs and the risks of a free trade agreement. It is true that the two most significant trade agreements signed in recent years – CETA with Canada and the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement – are treaties between liberal democracies, while an agreement between EU and GCC should take into account a differences in the two political systems and in labour rules. Protests over the conditions of foreign workers hired by the Qatari government to build the venues for the 2022 World Cup are an example of the problems the two parts should manage and solve, but they are also the basis to start negotiations. Gulf governments are growing, everyday, more aware of life after oil, which means a need for diversification, investments, access to foreign technology and modernization of their societies. They also know that in the long run Europe is the most reliable partner they have. It seems that the intersection of EU-GCC interests is clear and present.