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stratEGIC Monthly July 2022 :Strategic Repositioning: Europe, US, Iran and the Gulf

BY Nikola Zukalová, Ashleigh White and Veronica Stigliani



stratEGIC Monthly July 2022

The sixth issue of the stratEGIC Monthly, featuring three analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in July 2022, centres on:

  1. GCC Leaders’ Tour to European Capitals Cement Strategic Partnerships amid Global Shifts;
  2. Iranian Weapon Smuggling and Strategic Regional Disruption;
  3. Biden’s Visit to the Gulf and its Potential to Recalibrate US Role in the Region.

GCC Leaders’ Tour to European Capitals Cements Strategic Partnerships amid Global Shifts

by Nikola Zukalová

July was an unprecedentedly active month for the Gulf leaders visits to the European Union (EU) member states, signalling a growing interest in cementing mutually beneficial strategic partnerships. Oman’s Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said travelled to Germany (13 July), UAE’s President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan went to France (18-19 July) — their first visit to the European Union in their respective positions — and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud visited Greece and France (26-28 July) in his first official European trip since 2018. In light of the sanctions on Russia and the EU’s member states search for alternatives to Russian energy supplies as well as partners to deliver on its ambitious strategic plans, (renewable) energy and investment was at the core of all three trips. The Gulf will be important for ensuring European energy security and staving off the influence of Russia and China and accelerating European strategic repositioning. Similarly, stronger ties with the EU and its member states can help achieve the goals of the Gulf countries’ long-term economic transformation reforms and diversify their international partnerships to limit their vulnerability to global disruptions and over-reliance on a single partner in addition to improving their international profile. With the strategic goals in mind, some notable achievements of the visits included: the Oman-Germany declaration of intent for energy cooperation, the France-UAE Comprehensive Strategic Energy Partnership, a TotalEnergies-ADNOC deal to supply fuel to France, the Saudi-Greek Strategic Partnership Council, connectivity projects to export Saudi electricity and hydrogen to Europe via Greece, submarine data cables linking Saudi Arabia and Greece to position the two countries as an eastern digital station for Europe to reach the Middle East.

The choice of the visits’ destinations is also telling — following the UK’s withdrawal, Germany and France are key players in the EU, the former seeking to establish a foothold in the Gulf, whereas the latter has sought to step up its role in the Middle Eastern affairs amid crises in Libya, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Sahel, to secure their own interests in the areas. France and Greece have emerged as crucial partners for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the EU and Germany could become one for Oman, which would welcome German investments, while Berlin places hopes in Muscat’s leverage with regional actors, including Iran. Similarly, Greece has assumed a more active role with the rise of the East Mediterranean in recent years and, together with Cyprus, strengthened ties with the Gulf, particularly Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, seeking to act as their bridge to the EU. Greece’s role is set to increase with the growing interest in the Western Balkans and Euro-Gulf cooperation will play a role in defending European security on its south-eastern flank. Notably, while in Greece, Mohammed bin Salman met with Albania’s Prime Minister, Edi Rama, as Athens hosted a summit with Albania and North Macedonia, shortly after the EU has agreed to open accession talks with the two countries. Shortly after the GCC round of visits concluded, Greek Foreign Minister, Nikos Dendias, met with his German and French counterparts, Annalena Baerbock and Catherine Colonna, in Athens and Paris, respectively (29 July), which further supports Greece’s emerging importance for European strategy in the Middle East. Going forward, mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and the Gulf countries will be important for both regions’ plans and standing amid the wider strategic repositioning vis-á-vis Russia, China and the US.

Iranian Weapon Smuggling and Strategic Regional Disruption

by Ashleigh White

On 7 July, the UK released a statement linking a batch of Iranian weapons — seized earlier this year by a Royal Navy warship in international waters south of Iran — to attacks on Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched by the Yemen-based Houthis (officially Ansar Allah). According to the UK, the weapons seized included surface-to-air-missiles and engines for land attack cruise missiles, in violation of the UN Security Council resolution 2216 (2015). A UK technical analysis discovered that the shipment contained multiple rocket engines for the Iranian produced 351 land attack cruise missile with a range of 1,000 km — regularly used by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE — and several 358 surface-to-air missiles. The UK Defence Ministry then presented the weapons and the evidence to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen. Although Iran has long been accused of supplying advanced weapons to the Houthis, this is the strongest evidence to date of its involvement. Since Yemen’s civil war erupted in 2014, Iran has politically supported the Houthis but has denied violating the UN sanctioned arms embargo. Arms smuggling to Yemen is an issue that faces the Saudi-led military coalition supporting Yemen’s government and the Gulf more generally. The lack of control over Yemen’s main ports, including Hodeidah and Salif, have allowed Iran to continue to operate, unchecked, and deliver increasingly sophisticated weapons to the Houthis. The 2018 Stockholm Agreement brought Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels to agree on a ceasefire and normalise relations in the main ports. However, the lack of enforcement has led to a continuation, and even an uptick, in arms smuggling. If Yemen’s sea ports remain under Houthi control and without UN supervision, Iran will likely continue to smuggle increasingly advanced arms, escalate regional tensions and stoke the fire of the Yemen war to the detriment of the Yemeni people and the region as a whole.

Biden’s Visit to the Gulf: An Opportunity to Recalibrate US Role in the Region?

by Veronica Stigliani

From 13 to 15 June, US President Joe Biden officially visited Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, in one of the most dynamic international tours undertaken by a US Head of State. Before Biden’s departure, many wondered whether it would have been more convenient for him to stay in the White House, and, following the trip, doubts have been raised about Washington’s interests and its ability to achieve them. Concerns centred on risks facing the US related to the unfolding energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the glaring realisation of US,UK, and EU dependency on imported oil. Biden selected to reset its relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to hedge against Russia’s energy strategy. He departed the US armed with four goals: 1. To convince oil producing states to increase production, 2. enhance Israel’s regional integration; 3. create a reliable anti-Iran bloc and, 4. consolidate the US regional position and therefore check China and Russia. Biden did not succeed to fulfil any of these objectives. On energy security, Saudi Arabia and the UAE already reached their maximum capacity and will discuss the possibility of increasing production only in tandem with OPEC+ members during the upcoming summit (3 August). As for further Arab-Israel peace deals, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israeli planes and the two sides agreed to remove multinational peacekeepers from the disputed Tiran Island. While Israel presented these as steps towards normalisation, Saudi Arabia confirmed its commitment to Palestine. On the Iran dossier, Israel, the US and much of the Gulf Cooperation Council share concerns about Teheran’s nuclear weapons potential but retain varying threat perceptions. Finally, while the GCC remains strategically allied to Washington (and the West more generally) it will not give up lucrative commercial relations with Moscow or Beijing and is seeking a non-aligned approach to trans-regional tensions. One presidential visit will not produce fundamental change to either the way Washington defines and pursues its interests or how the GCC (and the region more broadly) view the US. For now, the main actors involved seem content on balancing against Iran while keeping their political and economics options open.