Between a Rock and a Hard Place: EU-Gulf Energy Partnership Risks Overshadowing Human Rights

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By ECDHR Staff, 31st March 2022

On March 22nd, the European Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing apropos the strategic partnership with the Gulf region. Leading experts were invited to discuss with MEPs the priorities, risks, and challenges of such a partnership. In this article, the ECDHR team analyses the topics discussed and the EU’s commitment to the promotion of Human Rights in the Gulf.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has propelled energy security discourse at the centre of the European media coverage of the crisis. European political officials have responded to the Russian threat to EU energy security in various ways: some pushing for EU energy autonomy, others surfing the wave of general anxiety to urge a transition to more environmentally friendly energy sources, and still others preaching the de-Russification of European energy supplies.

However, despite these polarised and mainstream public statements, the reality seems much more complex: European permanent energy independence may not be achieved in the short term. Recent diplomatic missions of high-level EU officials in the Gulf region reveal a growing interest in establishing a strong partnership with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which include Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait: three of the biggest suppliers of energy resources in the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

While bilateral partnerships between individual EU member states and GCC countries are not a novelty in the trade, energy and security sectors, the recent will to cooperate with the energy-resourceful monarchies at an EU level deserves attention. This is especially true in relation to its consequences on the dire Human Rights situation in the Gulf region.

Most GCC countries are indeed ruled by draconian autocrats, who regularly violate human rights. For instance, Saudi Arabia is among the five world’s leading executioners, and its recent mass execution has been condemned by the United Nations High Commissioner. In Bahrain, the royal family ordered the violent military repression of the democratic demands of nearly half of its population during the 2011 Arab Spring. News agencies around the region are widely censored, and the soaring rate of political prisoners epitomises the utter lack of freedom of expression.

Moreover, we should not forget that Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies have been involved in a 7-year long conflict in Yemen, and some of their belligerent actions could and should be prosecuted under international law as war crimes and crimes against humanity, yet no Western state has formally sanctioned these countries.

Despite this obvious generalised lack of respect for Human Rights in the Gulf, EU officials – especially those engaged in the recent diplomatic talks – are apparently undeterred in pursuing their goal to ensure a copper-bottomed trading and energy commitment by the resource-rich GCC countries which would provide the EU with the political coverage to pursue energy actions against Russia, and thus against any other future threat.

The global geopolitical environment seems favourable to the EU’s desire of diversifying its energy suppliers. In fact, we are currently witnessing the retrenchment of the US from the Gulf and more broadly from the Middle East. In a context of mounting multipolarity in the MENA region, the dominant feeling in the Gulf is one of insecurity, hence an increasing need to diversify strategic partnerships.

To understand the diplomatic steps that the EU is undertaking to ensure the future of its energy security in the context of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, it is important to think beyond the general narrative which frames the Western side as “good” and the other – namely Putin’s – as “evil”. Since the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the crisis has indeed been framed as part of a global struggle between democracy and autocracy, a framework that has recently been reiterated by US president Joe Biden during his speech in Warsaw on March 26th.

While we will neither bolster nor refute the accuracy of this narrative, it is important to question the value Western powers give to democracy and human rights, especially when their promotion may clash with more practical interests. In particular, we have to understand how the EU protects its own interests regardless of the promotion of universal human rights and democratic values.

As EU citizens, we need to ask ourselves the following questions: For whom are we seeking security? What is the price of such security? And how can we ensure that our own security does not perpetrate and promote systems of oppression around the world?

Last week, the members of the European Parliament participated in a hearing with experts to assess the challenges, benefits, and risks of EU-GCC energy trade deals. ECDHR attended, and it was discouraging to witness the lack of political will to prioritise human rights over geopolitical and economic concerns. Human rights were rarely mentioned, and the expertise summoned lacked proposals comprising human rights protections.

During the hearing, it was repeatedly suggested that human rights promotion should be done behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny and shaming. Existing mechanisms, such as the EU Human Rights Dialogues, were praised for their achievements. Yet, while being essential, these diplomatic private channels oftentimes fail to achieve real change in the human rights situation on the ground.

It is precisely because we are witnessing a general trend where the EU’s international partnership strategy eclipses human rights considerations and commitments to democratic reforms, that we believe civil society’s role in publicly denouncing human rights abuses must continue. These efforts should be promoted and encouraged by European political officials instead of being set aside and disregarded as a second-class issue. Some undeniable progress has been achieved, nevertheless, the EU should not be complacent.