opn eu-1583229384752
Image Credit: AFP

Missing the forest for the trees: That was the conclusion of a day of discussion between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and EU experts on the Outlook for Middle East and North Africa (Mena) 2020. But when it came to perception, the discussion hosted by Dubai Public Policy Research Centre (Bh’uth) in partnership with European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) was all about revisting the challenges and opportunities of divergent vantage points.

Though many of the points made on Iran, the rift within the GCC, Iraq, Yemen and Libya (from the EU perspective) were not very surprising; it was interesting to note that some of those views have been held for so long.

The nuclear agreement, as EU experts maintain, is not a “dead horse” and may be worthy of support, but other than committing to it, there are no valid ideas on the table on how to address the security threat emanating from armed non-state actors that are controlled by Iran and act on its behalf

-

On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal, EU’s steadfast policy that any discussion about Iran be made with reference to the deal isn’t surprising, considering their political investment in reaching the deal. However, what is really surprising is that the agreement that legitimised the enrichment process (with breakthrough capability and a sunset clause) versus the previous position of making the GCC an enrichment-free zone.

Players like the UAE, who willingly signed the 123 agreements (nonproliferation principles) establishing a precedence for no-enrichment programmes, get little traction because of JCPOA. The plan, often held as a reference point in discussions on Iran, shouldn’t be a point of reference at all.

Iran nuclear deal

What is surprising however is that while EU experts continue to show support to JCPOA and continue to admit that it is lacking in many respects. There are however no new ideas on how a JCPOA+ could look like.

The nuclear agreement, as EU experts maintain, is not a “dead horse” and may be worthy of support, but other than committing to it, there are no valid ideas on the table on how to address the security threat emanating from armed non-state actors that are controlled by Iran and act on its behalf.

The issue of maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz and Bab Al Mandab is an example of the security threat Iran is posing. The international community is very well aware of the threat to the Strait of Hormuz. What is more, the maritime threat to Bab Al Mandab is new. The piracy problem in the Bab Al Mandab security started after the Al Houthi occupation of Sana’a (with strong support from post-JPCOA Iran).

Despite European maritime missions to secure the Strait of Hormuz, EU would not say who are they securing it from. This contradiction in addressing Iran’s action in the region will require a bit of soul searching from EU countries to develop a sustainable policy towards Iran and the region.

The Gulf rift

The rift within the GCC is another issue where the EU views come across as baffling. To continue dealing with the rift as an “unnecessary complication in a complicated region” dismisses not only the long history of the rift but also the fundamental position of transnational non-state actors versus that of the nation state.

Using the term “unnecessary complication” conveys a sense of “will” in the current rift; an innuendo that EU continues to see Qatar as a victim and which seems to explain why EU policies regarding the rift have been very ineffective thus far far. There is little acknowledgement of the impact of Qatar’s support of transnational non-state actors, be it militant groups or radical Islamic groups.

It is a fact that the impact of transnational non-state actors will not confine itself to Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain; it will at some point effect the world order which is build on the concept of the nation state. Something Europe is already suffering in the form of religiously or ethnically motivated groups that are creating armed militias.

The Turkish question

The discussion on Turkey also revealed the difficult ambivalence of the EU position. On one hand Turkey has moved from a course of friendship with Russia to one of direct confrontation in Idlib, a position that should bring Turkey closer to Nato. But Turkey defied Nato while acquiring the S-400 air-defence system from Moscow.

Ankara is also “threatening” the EU by opening the gates of immigration for Syrian refugees to Europe, exposing the EU to elements who might be radical. This European ambivalence in assessing whether Turkey is a friend or foe puts it at risk of procrastination.

What was not surprising however, is that experts from the EU don’t see themselves as distant from the region. There was no sense of “disenchantment” regardless of the difficulty of the issues and the difficulties from the lack of congruity.

Divergent vantage points may be more of an opportunity rather than a dilemma, as long as we deal with them only as a vantage point not a point of reference.

— Mohammad Baharoon is the director-general of Dubai Public policy Research Centre (BHUTH)

More on the issue