The EU will have to work harder if it wants to increase its influence in the region and engage the Gulf’s immense resources in the management of common challenges.
Europe’s objective in the Gulf in 2011 was to build stronger and more structural co-operation on common regional and global challenges, while at the same time showing some consistency with its own values in the context of the Arab Awakening. But it made only a limited effort on both fronts. The EU’s general approach towards the Gulf has remained fragmented, with member states seeking independent visibility and economic access. The EU’s strategic concept for the MENA region does not include the Gulf and co-operation was on an ad hoc basis without any longer-term perspective such as an interregional FTA. Catherine Ashton made her first trip to the region only this year to chair an EU–GCC ministerial in Abu Dhabi in April, which focused on events in the Arab world. Over the year, the EU welcomed the active role of Saudi Arabia on Syria and Yemen, and France and the UK were eager to engage Qatar on Libya.
Meanwhile, the small island state of Bahrain experienced its own uprising from mid-February. With Saudi support, the monarchy responded by imposing repressive measures on civilians. Ashton and the European Council issued generic calls amidst unproven allegations of Iranian meddling. However, member states responded with a mixture of realism and caution. After the crisis, the EU recovered some credibility by insisting on national dialogue, appropriate investigation and engagement of the UN on human rights violations and respect for the rule of law. This was followed up in November when a national independent commission issued a tough report uncovering widespread abuses and recommending reforms. Eventually, the monarchy invited the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to provide support. Although timid calls for democracy and human rights are starting to surface in the Gulf, the EU is still far from being able – or willing – to have an influence.