stratEGIC Monthly (May 2022):

Restart: UAE’s Power Transition, BRICS+ and EU’s Gulf Strategy

by Nikola Zukalová

The fourth issue of the stratEGIC Monthly, featuring three analyses of key issues that defined the Euro-Gulf space in May 2022, centres on: 

  1. Power Transition in the UAE;

  2. Striking a Balance on the Crossroads between the East and West: GCC, BRICS+ and Russia;

  3. EU’s Strategic Partnership with the Gulf.



Implications of Power Transition in the UAE


On 13 May 2022, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Ruler of Abu Dhabi and the second President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), passed away after battling a long illness. The second transfer of presidential power in the UAE was swift, smooth and predictable. As expected, Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MbZ), the long-time Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and half brother of Khalifa, was elected President of the UAE by the Federal Supreme Council, the highest federal body composed of the rulers of the individual emirates, leaving no room for uncertainty. The move cemented the leading role of Abu Dhabi within the Union and the commitment of the seven emirates’ to the legacy of their predecessors and founding fathers. The Presidency of the UAE remains in the hands of the largest emirate’s ruler, while the premiership is held by Dubai, given the two emirates’ leading historic role in the formation of the federation, and the rule of Abu Dhabi remains with the sons of Zayed bin Sultan, founder and the first President of the UAE, who led Abu Dhabi from 1966 until 2004. The clearly developed succession line was important for the stability of the country in such a vulnerable time and helped prevent unrest. The move also shifted the succession order from father-to-son to brother-to-brother and the choice of the new Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi that will determine the next person in the line of succession is being closely eyed. The accession of MbZ is expected to accelerate the push for domestic economic and social development and the growth of the UAE’s regional and international role. However, it will not significantly alter the Union’s course given that, for years, MbZ already assumed an active role in the day-to-day governance, international representation and military affairs of the country due to Khalifa’s protracted health issues. Despite the leading role of Abu Dhabi and competition among the individual member emirates — like in any federation — the commitment to the unity of the seven emirates will continue to define the future direction of the UAE.


Striking a Balance on the Crossroads between the East and West


The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been expending tremendous energy attempting to stave off the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by maintaining neutrality and have sought to help resolve the conflict and manage the fallout, particularly for food security and energy. In May, the GCC countries continued to carefully navigate their ties to the Euro-Atlantic sphere, while expanding global partnerships. With the GCC countries’ growing international profile based on their strategic position on the crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa and longstanding ties to the US and UK, pressures to lean further into the West or the Global South have been mounting. Indeed, May 2022 was an eventful month for these two competing visions in the GCC. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, visited Oman (11 May), two weeks later, he made a quick stopover in Bahrain before heading to Riyadh one day before the OPEC+ session in Vienna for a meeting with the GCC Secretary General and the six GCC countries’ Foreign Ministers to discuss the Ukraine war. Some interpreted this as a move away from the West—a perspective reinforced with the 23 May participation of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in a virtual BRICS+ meeting hosted by China to discuss expansion of the five-member BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Russia’s war in Ukraine may represent the impetus to strengthen BRICS. Similar to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the other potential candidates that participated in the BRICS+ meeting — Egypt, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Argentina, Nigeria, Senegal, and Thailand — are rapidly rising developing countries with significant economic weight, growth potential, energy reserves and strategic positions, which could strengthen the bloc’s position in the Indo-Pacific, South America, Subsaharan Africa, and the G20, and expand it into North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Caucasus. The BRICS+ format could potentially lead to the emergence of a politico-economic bloc counterweighting the Euro-Atlantic where the emerging markets are expected to surpass today’s most developed economies, including the US and the European Union (EU). This is significant over the longterm, considering that the BRICS have been developing institutions in parallel to the ones embodying the Euro-Atlantic-led international system, such as the IMF, the SWIFT payment system and the World Bank, since the bloc’s expansion would also mean an increased geopolitical and geo-economic weight and therefore strengthening South-South cooperation. However, in-sync with their neutral stance and balancing their Western and Eastern partnerships, the same day as hosting Lavrov in Riyadh, the GCC members held a virtual meeting with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba. Simultaneously, the GCC have been coordinating with the US, EU and the UK throughout the crisis, looking for ways to alleviate Europe’s energy crisis and eagerly welcoming the EU’s proactiveness to strengthen ties with the region with the “Partnership with the Gulf” document released in mid-May. Therefore, given the shifting global power-dynamic, the GCC countries’ are carefully manoeuvring between the East and West, seeking to embed themselves in both, the old, static and any potential new, emerging structures, identify common goals and reap the benefits of cooperation with both sides in order to future proof themselves for any potential global disruptions that could hinder their development goals and ambitious socio-economic reforms.


A New Chapter, or New Book for EU-GCC Relations?

Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the smooth succession in the UAE was the release of the European Union’s strategy for enhancing relations to the Gulf. This level of engagement with the GCC, and the Gulf in general, is long overdue. Whether couching the argument in economic, political, diplomatic or security terms, the idea that the EU had, until May (2022), neglected a process of formalising its relationship to the GCC, spoke of its inability of reaching a common position on such a vital region in the world. There remains a lot of work to be done and much of the document will face significant hurdles in being implemented but there is also scope for guarded optimism—not least because the timing of the document confirms that the EU has finally realised that its energy relationship to Russia created unwanted dependancy. The EU document recognises the Gulf’s strategic importance and shows the EU’s desire to step up its engagement in the region. There is an evident sense of urgency on behalf of the EU as it grapples with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, while seeking to implement ambitious green energy and digital transition plans. Indeed, some sections of the document reveal the EU’s need to enlist the cooperation, and particularly financial support, of the Gulf countries to meet its plans. The Russian invasion of Ukraine provided the final necessary impetus for the EU to address its relationship to the GCC in light of the failure to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA), the resolution of the intra-GCC crisis and the growing number of common challenges. The EU is now trying to reposition itself to break its unwanted dependency on gas coming from Russia and demonstrate its centrality in global affairs by reaching out to the GCC countries. The ‘Strategic Partnership with the Gulf’ is a blueprint for redefining relations. It identifies core areas that the EU and the Gulf can cooperate on as well as proposes concrete steps that may be undertaken to achieve mutual ambitions. The 17 areas are broad and range from trade to energy and from food to counterterrorism. In other words, finally, the EU is offering a comprehensive strategy for constructing a strategic relationship to the Gulf region. Interestingly, the EU did not identify the document as reflective of its relationship specifically to the GCC but rather to the Gulf— opening the opportunity for the future inclusion of other Gulf countries like Yemen, Iraq, and even, potentially, Iran. Despite the vague wording, the text itself seems geared to the GCC-EU relationship however. Some areas such as visa liberalisation, energy security and security cooperation can only really be fulfilled through an organisation that matches the EU. And, at the time of this writing, the only functional regional organisation is the GCC. Perhaps the reluctance to use Gulf Cooperation Council on the document is indicative of what lies ahead in terms of EU-Gulf relations which is to say uncertainty and the inability of the EU to make a final decision and take a final stand. Just as the EU continues to refuse to identify its own geographic boundaries so it remains reluctant to define the boundaries of its Gulf partnership or to determine that, increasingly, the Euro-Gulf space — in which the EU and the GCC are the most robust organisations — are merging into a community of fate.