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Time to Rethink the Middle East?

Europe’s relationship with the Middle East is a complex one. In the past two centuries it has encompassed domination, dependence, antagonism and – not infrequently – open conflict. As Europe’s ability to directly influence the region has waned, in recent years the relationship has become increasingly characterised by two factors: economics and security.

In economic terms, the Middle East remains a fundamental hedge for Europe against an over-dependence on Russian oil and gas. Yet the region – particularly the Gulf – is also an important market for European exports, both of goods and services: a little-noted aspect of many Gulf states’ diversification policies is the extent to which they rely upon European multinationals in the consulting, engineering and construction sectors, with contracts worth many billions of euros signed on a regular basis.

This brisk trade in goods and services brings us to the second factor – security. It’s not only trucks and trains that the Arab states are buying from Europe, but also tanks and fighter planes. Saudi Arabia’s current intervention in Yemen has been made possible by recent major investments in (mostly European) armaments.

Arms sales are good business for European countries such as France, the UK and (increasingly) Germany. Yet Europe is not only selling weapons in the Middle East: rather, the region remains one of the few areas where European powers continue to maintain a pretence of power projection: from the UK’s sovereign air bases in Cyprus, to France’s naval base in Abu Dhabi (which will shortly be joined by a British naval base in nearby Bahrain).

These kinds of links remind us that Europe’s security relationship with the Middle East is more complex than the simple jihadism/foreign fighters dynamic which draws most of the headlines. While Europe exports its fair share of disaffected youth to Syria and Iraq, and in turn becomes the target of ISIS-inspired (or directed) terrorism, there are longer-term geo-strategic issues which dictate the willingness (and indeed the capacity) for Europe to intervene in the region.

One of these is proximity. Libya, for instance, has been witness to a much more involved (if still half-hearted) intervention than Syria and Iraq, the latter of which is still seen as a firmly American responsibility, and the former an increasingly Russian monopoly.

Yet Libya also demonstrates quite clearly the constraints which shape Europe’s engagement with the region. Europe’s room for manoeuvre is distinctly limited, and lies chiefly in backing small, peripheral nations (such as Jordan, Lebanon and Oman), or offering a hedge to rising powers (such as Saudi Arabia or Turkey) against sudden swings in US policy. What Europe is arguably not able to do – as the current migration crisis has painfully demonstrated – is articulate a role for itself which is any larger or deeper than these twin functions of stabilising the periphery or hedging the core.

Recent attempts to essentially bribe Turkey into holding back refugees from Europe’s gates are indicative of this weakness in Europe’s position, and have proved a major PR blunder – with the payments coming across like a latter-day version of Dane-geld. When European powers have attempted to go beyond this policy and take a more active role – viz. Libya – the results have generally been unimpressive, and merely serve to reinforce the substantial lobby advocating minimal (i.e. purely indirect) entanglements in the region.

Arguably, Europe’s biggest problem is its lack of imagination, and in particular its incapacity to consider itself a sufficiently worthy model of emulation. It is strange that the one bloc of nations which has done the most to move beyond narrow national interests in its own internal dealings still seems wedded to bilateralism when dealing with others.

While the EU cannot be blamed for long-standing failures in Arab integration (intra-MENA trade is negligible, and agreements such as GAFTA have been criticised as merely offering an outlet for the dumping of falsely-labelled Chinese imports), it is also true that the EU has expended very little effort in this direction. Indeed, on the one occasion that the EU was presented by a bloc prepared to stand up to a certain extent for its own interests – the GCC – a trade agreement was left dangling.

Rather than encouraging multilateral cooperation (either through the Arab League or the GCC), the EU has all too often preferred to operate on a bilateral basis with Middle Eastern states, securing Association Agreements which offer an arguably inferior mode of integration into European markets.

Indeed, an argument can be made that such agreements helped cause the very social unrest which led to the Arab Spring. By aggressively opening previously dirigiste (and often corrupt) economies to European markets, Association Agreements contributed toward the substantial reconfiguration of the prevailing social contract which occurred in many MENA states over the past decade. It is worth recalling that the first Arab state to fully enter into a free trade zone with the EU was Tunisia.

Undoubtedly we are living through a period of profound crisis and transformation in the Middle East. As of yet though, there is little sign that Europe’s modus operandi toward the region has caught up. Instead, it remains dominated by short-term economic self-interest and a fragmentary foreign policy.

Perhaps the time has come to rethink the Middle East, and our relationship to it. On March 10-11 the Middle East Directions Programme will be holding its inaugural research meeting, titled “Rethinking the Middle East: Transformations, Flows and (Dis)Orders”, which will attempt to offer new paradigms for Europe’s policy-makers in engaging with our closest neighbour. Join the debate by following us on twitter at @EuiMed, posting to #MRM2016, or checking our website at

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