In recent years, Europe’s borders have become a land of strategic opportunities for the Gulf monarchies, especially for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar: investments, commercial routes and ports, security agreements and defense procurement. In a multipolar system, opportunities favor political relations, but do not necessarily translate into stricter cooperation.
Several reasons made this political choice possible. First, Abu Dhabi and Doha stepped up foreign policy ambitions and geopolitical projection beyond the Middle East. Second, these export-oriented countries searched out new routes and markets to boost post-oil and post-gas economic diversifications. Third, they differentiated international alliances due to the diminished American role in the Middle Eastern region.
The maritime factor also plays a role in how the UAE and Qatar frame the European Union political space. In fact, Europe’s southern borders are maritime ones, since the Suez Canal connects the Eastern Mediterranean with the Red Sea waters bordering the Arabian Peninsula: This matters for the growing Emirati and Qatari geopolitical and geostrategic aims.
It is not by chance that the Gulf monarchies – first the UAE – strengthened, in recent years, bilateral relations with France, Greece and Cyprus. These countries are all maritime actors. Moreover, they belong to the southern side of the EU or, in the case of France, are active players along the Mediterranean coasts.
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One point is clear: The Gulf monarchies – the UAE and Qatar among them continue to frame relations with Europe through bilateral, not multilateral, lenses. This has been the only way to move the relationship forward so far but, at the same time, represents the main limit in Europe-Gulf ties. The recent visit of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Abu Dhabi crown prince and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, to Paris in September suggests this political posture is going to last.
On the one hand, not all EU members acknowledge the importance of building relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, especially northern and eastern countries. On the other hand, the GCC states prefer to cultivate bilateral, not multilateral, relations with European countries as they primarily pursue national – and often competitive – gains. The reasons behind the “bilateral choice” are the same occurring between Gulf monarchies and NATO cooperation, and vice versa.
The UAE and Qatar are also increasingly involved in the crises, and power games, occurring at the EU’s borders: Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Cyprus and the Turkish-Greek geopolitical tensions. These Gulf states are not only interested in building leverage on the ground, but they are also taking sides in open or subtle conflicts, through a variety of policy tools: indirect military support, investments, agreements and counter-agreements, media.
Far from European borders, there is a maritime mission, Emasoh, which sums up why the Gulf monarchies – with the UAE and Qatar among them – consider Europe a land of strategic opportunities. Emasoh, the France-led European mission for patrolling and surveillance in the Hormuz strait, is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, at the French permanent military base in the UAE. It was established in 2020, after the Iranian attacks against oil tankers in 2019. This mission was the European answer to “Operation Sentinel”, the US-led International Maritime Security Construct launched in 2019 to protect navigation and international trade in the Hormuz strait.
From the Emirati and Qatari perspective, Emasoh and Sentinel symbolize how the diversification of international alliances can strengthen Gulf monarchies’ security, with two parallel missions pursuing – despite different genealogies and geopolitical visions the same goal. In this way, Europe appears to Abu Dhabi and Doha as the land of strategic opportunities, in a highly-competitive international system in which the Gulf monarchies search a balance among different and often competing geopolitical poles.
In search of its strategic autonomy, the EU is not reluctant to doing business with China, differently from the US which has instead entered a spiral of systemic competition with Beijing. For the UAE and Qatar, the EU’s pragmatic stance on China indirectly supports the Gulf monarchies’ need to balance security priorities (with Washington) and energy-economic interests (with Beijing), thus continuing to develop parallel partnerships with the US and China.
The Afghan crisis sheds light on this point, with Qatar playing the role of dialogue broker among the Taliban, regional and global powers: also the crises at Europe’s political – not geographical – borders can turn into strategic opportunities for those Gulf capitals willing to confirm or expand their global leverage, and image.
On Afghanistan, Doha and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi are indeed working to build diplomatic consensus around a crisis that does not involve the EU’s geographical borders, but puts the EU’s geopolitical borders under pressure, in terms of uncontrolled migration and security threats. Not by chance, many European embassies in Kabul have been relocated to the Al Thani’s emirate.
Three factors suggest the Gulf monarchies, especially the UAE and Qatar, and Europe are likely to experience a season of growing geo-economic and geo-political convergence. First, the signature of the “Abraham Accords” between the UAE and Israel in 2020 forges closer, long-term interests between the GCC region and the Mediterranean space. Second, the EastMed gas project represents an occasion to expand markets and connectivity. Third, the de-escalation path embraced by the UAE and Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis Qatar, Iran and Turkey mitigates risks of high-intensity confrontation among powers while designing shared interests along the Gulf-EU route.
The UAE and Qatar are thus framing Europe as a land of strategic opportunities to navigate through a multipolar world. Stricter institutional cooperation remains a possibility, while bilateral relations have been the reality until now, and the probable outlook.