The Brussels MENA Briefing: The Gulf Cooperation Council at 40 – Opportunities and Challenges for the EU

The Brussels MENA Briefing: The Gulf Cooperation Council at 40 – Opportunities and Challenges for the EU

June 16, 2021

On June 16, the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) and Stimson Europe hosted their twelfth “Brussels MENA Briefing” – a series of after-work briefings on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region – on “The Gulf Cooperation Council at 40: Challenges and Opportunities for the European Union (EU)”

Speakers included Najla al-Qassemi, Director Global Affairs Division, B’huth Dubai Public Policy Research Center, and Sebastian Sons, Researcher at CARPO. The discussion was moderated by Wael Abdulshafi, Research Analyst at the Stimson Center.

The Briefing started by describing that while the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states had already introduced plans (or “visions”) for massive investments into various sectors such as renewable energy, entrepreneurship, tourism, and technology, the double shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and the drop in oil-prices have further highlighted the need to implement new policies on economic diversification.

As such, the discussants noted, the region is undergoing a profound socio-economic transition, moving swiftly away from the traditional rentier state system, albeit at different speeds. The United Arab Emirates (UAE), as one example mentioned during the Briefing, was one of the first to start with this transition. The UAE has for example made advanced steps concerning the reform of the labor market, such as naturalization of foreign workers.

GCC countries have also implemented tax-reforms. One speaker pointed out that while the GCC states earlier used to promote themselves as tax-free economies, they are increasingly introducing tax-policies and regulations to attract more Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). 

When it comes to EU-GCC relations, as one discussant mentioned, the EU has long lacked a comprehensive long-term strategy vis-à-vis the GCC states. Relationships have mainly been bilateral between the member states of both institutions and have been driven by economic ties. Yet the EU recently set up two initiatives to develop a coherent strategy towards the GCC: the ‘EU-GCC Dialogue on Economic Diversification’ and the ‘Enhanced EU-GCC Political Dialogue, Cooperation and Outreach’.

As mentioned during the discussion, a main challenge for EU-GCC cooperation is the issue of Labor and Human Rights, which is featured prominently in the EU strategy towards the Gulf. The speakers highlighted that these critical issues need to be addressed pragmatically, and one speaker mentioned that the way this is best done is through a case-by-case approach and in private room discussions, rather than public discourses.

Other challenges include the fact that neither the EU, nor the GCC always functions as a unified front, which makes bilateral engagement between member states an attractive alternative. While the Gulf states have a positive assessment of the EU as a model for economic integration, peace, and prosperity, they also see the EU institution as at times fractured, reflected for example through Brexit. The EU also does not always consider the GCC as a unified front, illustrated for example by the Gulf rift in 2017.

Nevertheless, as one speaker pointed out, the region’s conflict fatigue and the recent al-Ula agreement on reconciliation and overcoming the GCC-internal rift present a historical momentum for EU-GCC cooperation. A few areas were mentioned where cooperation could take place, including energy, which is an important topic for both the EU and GCC. Furthermore, the EU and GCC could cooperate more on youth and women empowerment by for example enhancing partnerships, identifying joint projects, and investing in capacity development. During the Briefing, the example of the UAE was highlighted in which there has been an increasing participation of women in the workplace over the past 20 years. EU programs such as Erasmus and Horizon could furthermore support entrepreneurship in the GCC region. Overall, as there has been for a long time a detachment between the two regions, there is a need for more exchange, for example through engagement in dialogue, to tackle mutual stereotypes between the EU and GCC member states.

Desirée Custers, MENA Briefing