EU unveils first long-term strategy to shape future Gulf ties

The bloc presented concrete proposals for strengthened EU-GCC co-operation on everything from energy, green transition and climate change, to trade, regional stability and global security

EU ambassador to the UAE Andrea Matteo Fontana, in an exclusive interview with 'The National' in Abu Dhabi.  Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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The EU on Wednesday set out a new overarching strategy for its future relationship with Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) states that covers everything from global security to trade to the green transition and digitalisation.

“At a time of insecurity and significant challenges to the rules-based international order … the European Union and Gulf countries stand to gain from a stronger and more strategic partnership,” the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said as he unveiled the plan.

“We need to work more closely together on stability in the Gulf and the Middle East, on global security threats; energy security, climate change and the green transition, digitalisation, trade and investment.”

Andrea Matteo Fontana, the European bloc's ambassador to the UAE, told The National that the plan will be pivotal to EU-GCC relations.

“The new strategy is called the strategic partnership with the Gulf. It’s a long-term strategy. And it's going to take years to be fully implemented. So, it's like a road map,” the EU ambassador said.

He said it is the first strategy of its kind between the two groups and the EU will increase its diplomatic delegations in the region with a new mission in Qatar later this year. The EU already has delegations in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Mr Fontana said that the restoration of Gulf relations at the AlUla summit in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 had paved the way for a comprehensive regional approach.

“We are in a position now to implement it after the resolution of the Gulf rift, which for many years really put some obstacles in on the path of our relations with the GCC.”

Prioritising security with GCC

Mr Fontana, who assumed his post in 2019, said the new strategy will prioritise defence and security cooperation with the GCC countries.

He said that the Gulf was strategically important, not just for energy but for trade.

“I mean, sitting in the UAE, you're just starting to think about the importance of the port of Dubai in global supply chains, and all the goods that are moving on the way from Asia to the EU.

“So for us, the security and the stability of the Gulf is of paramount importance also for our economies because of all the trade that happens in the Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Indian Ocean, we will prioritise the stability and security of the Gulf in the future.”

There have been several attacks on tankers and cargo ships in the region over the past three years.

The US has blamed Iran, which has denied any involvement. As well as near-daily missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia, in January Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen launched attacks on Abu Dhabi. One of the terrorist attacks killed three foreign workers.

In 2020, France and other EU member states launched a European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) in response to the attacks on tankers and commercial ships.

The surveillance mission is headquartered at the French naval base in Abu Dhabi.

But Mr Fontana said a major cornerstone of the EU strategy for improving security in the Gulf was the revival of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, which is officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“For us, our most important contribution to regional security and the Gulf is the JCPOA. So, we have been supporting this agreement from the very beginning. We think that it is very important for the region to make sure that Iran doesn't produce nuclear weapons,” said Mr Fontana.

“We are the co-ordinator of the talks in Vienna. There’s an agreement on the table now and the negotiations have concluded. But Iran and the US still consider the details.”

Several Middle East states have expressed unease about a return to the JCPOA, which tackles Iran's nuclear programmes but not its ballistic missile threat or its support for regional militias.

The future producer of hydrogen to EU

As the world is going through a green energy transition, the EU is eyeing the Gulf region as a key producer of green hydrogen.

Mr Fontana said the Gulf, and the UAE in particular, are very well equipped to be a global hub of hydrogen production as the world is moving away from fossil fuels to zero-carbon technologies by 2050.

Hydrogen — especially green hydrogen — will be very much sought-after in Europe, he said.

“We can create a global market for hydrogen that is a bit similar to the market for oil that will need to be regulated. And therefore the Gulf will play a very important role in this new market,” he said.

Hydrogen production is a mainstay in the UAE’s 2050 strategy in terms of combating global climate change. It aims to be a leading exporter of hydrogen.

And In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe is seeking to strengthen its energy ties with the Gulf and other partners to overcome its heavy dependence on Moscow for oil and gas.

“The Gulf will remain an important partner in the coming period in order to make up for the shortfall of energy sources from Russia,” said the senior EU diplomat.

Strengthening trade with GCC

At an economic level, Mr Fontana said that the new strategy will build on already robust trade between the two groups.

“Take the EU and the UAE as an example, the annual trade volume reached €40 billion ($41.9bn). And this imports and exports combined,” he said.

“Investment is very important. So this is about investment coming from the EU into the UAE and investment coming from the UAE to the EU. So that's a very important area where we want to do more interesting discussions about the framework for investments.”

The six member countries of the GCC — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar — represent a major trading partner for Europe and the 27-member EU bloc is the GCC's third-largest trade partner after China and India.

Shaping the future with Artificial intelligence

The new strategy will also give due attention to the Artificial Intelligence (AI) revolution, which has transformed many sectors and the way people lead their lives.

The UAE, the EU ambassador said, is particularly active in the digital space and the EU is a leader in research and innovation.

He said the EU’s AI strategy is “human-centric” as new applications and software have become integrated into many aspects in life.

“Digitalisation is a priority for us. But it's about which kind of digitalisation we want. We want it to be human-centric, so we are worried that as we go forward, artificial intelligence may take more control over our lives because there are more and more decisions that are made by machines. We think that it is important as we go forward to make sure that for important decisions, it is people making these decisions, and people controlling how the machines are working,” he said.

Updated: May 18, 2022, 6:31 PM