21st Sep 2023


The Gulf is not the exception

The impact of the Arab uprisings on domestic dynamics in the Gulf poses a dilemma for the European Union. At a time when the Gulf’s financial prowess and regional political clout are most in demand, how can Europe engage with the ruling regimes without condoning their reactionary policies towards reform?

Long content to excuse their acquiescence with authoritarian regimes through appeals to cultural relativism, lack of leverage or outright necessity (in terms of security and energy), EU member states can no longer be sure that such an approach will ensure the much prized stability.

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  • "There is an increasing reluctance, especially by the youth, to have cultural, religious and social norms imposed by paternalistic, overbearing regimes" (Photo: Stephan Geyer)

In the face of the crisis, Europe has incorporated economic and financial rationales to its traditionally security-oriented policies towards the Gulf. For EU member states, the region represents a high growth area with a lot of potential for developing trade and investment; they fiercely compete for lucrative projects bankrolled by revenues from high oil and gas prices.

The Gulf has become an importance source of inward investment in Europe. Politically, the Gulf States have reacted to the Arab uprisings by stepping up their presence in regional policy-making and have been useful allies for Europe (and the US) in a number of conflagrations.

Conditions therefore militate against a change of policy. Europe, weary of upsetting the ruling regimes of the Arabian Peninsula, is signaling its support to them and has yet to address the issue of repression within the Gulf States. But the EU should be careful, or at the very least alert and prepared. Dissatisfaction is fermenting in pockets of the Gulf’s population.

Countless analysts are warning that change is inevitable in this region too. The genie is out of the bottle and louder and new found calls for change, although limited, will be harder to silence. The question is whether change will be controlled and gradual or abrupt and sudden, and how much longer will the status quo hold.

Gulf regimes have been quick to deploy pre-emptive measures in the face of a potential spread of protests to the Gulf.

The extent of financial outlays, as cash hand outs or destined to job creation, salary increases, and development projects, is unprecedented. But these socio-economic concessions are fiscally unsustainable in the long term, especially if coupled with demographic trends. They have also stepped up repressive measures. Arrests of activists or dissenters have increased, exponentially in some cases (94 on trial in UAE). Media laws have become more stringent and there have been attempts to close down, or at least control, the burgeoning space for discussion provided by new social media.

A consequence of this repression has been an increase in sectarianism as the regimes attribute any opposition to ‘foreign’ elements driven by sectarian agendas. But the clampdown on what were, at least initially, very mild criticisms and petitions is likely to provoke a backlash and the radicalisation of demands.

The population of the Gulf States has witnessed an uptick in local anger. Grievances are more forcefully aired, as seen in protests over political prisoners in Saudi Arabia, working conditions in Oman, the prime minister and citizenship issues in Kuwait and the general dissatisfaction with governance issues.

There is an increasing reluctance, especially by the youth, to have cultural, religious and social norms imposed by paternalistic, overbearing regimes. Government criticism by citizens, quite unusual three or four years ago, has become very common in social media during the past two years.

The combined effects of the regimes’ reaction and the popular dynamics make some states more vulnerable to increasing societal and economic pressures and exogenous shocks such as fluctuations in global energy prices. The EU should at the very least hedge its bets.

Europe faces the dilemma not only of whether to change its approach, but also of how to do so.

The default policy inertia is compounded by the inaccessibility of these states: they are not candidates for development aid, any suggestion of reform is anathema to the ruling regimes, and their societies are generally very conservative and suspicious of ‘Western’ agendas. In addition, regimes are hardly monolithic with turf battles between competing factions of the royal families further complicating external relations.

How then should external relations towards the Gulf be modelled?

Do no harm. If the situation cannot be improved, at least the EU should not make it worse. The EU shares responsibility for a permissive international environment, including by the continued arms sales of its member states. Unwavering support from abroad lowers the cost of repression.

Engage with the population. Rather than giving up and just dealing with the regimes, efforts should be made to engage the population. Twinnings, exchanges and efforts to weave a web of inter-regional people-to-people connections offer the best chance of enabling the population to articulate and determine their priorities and to voice them.

Encourage economic reforms. The Gulf States should be encouraged in their diversification and privatisation efforts, as moving away from the rentier state model could help the political emancipation of the population. The populations’ financial dependence on the state dampens the prospect of demands for change.

Stability in the Gulf may prove more fragile than often believed.

The EU should be proactive and seek to encourage controlled and gradual reform to avoid greater future disruptions. In doing so it should not fear for its commercial and security relations. While there is a sense among the oil- and gas-rich regimes that external partners need them more than the other way around, this position is overstated.

The EU should be confident that its relations with the Gulf States are secure enough to withstand the removal of its kid gloves.

The writer is senior researcher and Middle East expert at the European think-tank FRIDE.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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