Gulf Countries, Iran, Iraq and Yemen

The EU has Cooperation Agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council (a regional organisation grouping Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), and with Yemen, and a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Iraq. Currently, the EU has no contractual relations with Iran but recognises that there is great potential for deeper relations.

Legal basis

  • Title V (external action) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU);
  • Articles 206-207 (trade) and 216-219 (international agreements) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU).

1. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)

The GCC was established in May 1981. Today, the group — still comprising the original members, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — serves as the main conduit for the EU’s relations with the six countries. On a number of occasions, the EU and the GCC have taken joint positions on problems in the Middle East.

The oil-rich Gulf countries, the source of approximately 20% of the EU’s energy needs, are witnessing considerable socio-economic and political changes, although the progress of reforms is uneven. The effect of the Arab uprisings on the monarchies of the Gulf has been subdued by preventive policies — subsidies and an expansion of public-sector employment — and by repressive measures, notably in Bahrain and in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. The GCC countries have maintained active roles in Middle Eastern diplomacy, sometimes in rivalry with each other. This has contributed to the ongoing diplomatic crisis between Qatar and the other GCC countries, which accuse Qatar of supporting terrorist and sectarian groups (including the Muslim Brotherhood), financing groups associated with Iran, infringing its neighbours’ sovereignty and instigating political dissent in neighbouring countries.

While the EU hopes to develop its political relations in the region, EU-GCC relations have largely been defined by economic and trade ties. Trade volumes between the two sides have increased steadily since the 1980s. In 2016, the GCC was the EU’s fourth-largest trading partner, and the EU was the GCC’s first trading partner.

The EU and the GCC signed a Cooperation Agreement in 1988. The agreement aims to strengthen stability in a region of strategic importance, facilitate political and economic relations, broaden economic and technical cooperation, and deepen cooperation on energy, industry, trade and services, agriculture, fisheries, investment, science, technology and the environment. The agreement provides for annual joint councils/ministerial meetings, and for joint cooperation committees at the level of senior officials. In April 2016, the EU-GCC Joint Cooperation Committee agreed to establish a more structured informal dialogue on trade and investment. The most recent EU-GCC joint council and ministerial meeting took place in July 2016 in Brussels. The agreement makes no provision for a parliamentary body.

The EU and the GCC agreed on a Joint Action Programme for 2010-2013, setting out a roadmap for closer cooperation on issues such as information and communications technology, nuclear safety, clean energy, research and economic dialogue. The renewal of this programme has, however, been delayed, mainly because of the lack of progress over trade matters. Negotiations on a free trade agreement were started in 1990 but have stalled since 2008, with the question of export duties remaining a source of disagreement. Since 1 January 2007, funds from the Partnership Instrument (and its predecessor, the Instrument for Cooperation with Industrialised and other high-income countries and territories (ICI)) have been available to finance measures for implementing the EU-GCC Cooperation Agreement. The GCC countries also benefit from the Erasmus Mundus programme.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament adopted a resolution on EU relations with the GCC on 24 March 2011 calling for a strategic partnership with the GCC and its member states. This position was reiterated in Parliament’s resolution of 9 July 2015 on the security challenges in the Middle East and North Africa region and the prospects for political stability[1]. Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula holds regular inter-parliamentary meetings with the consultative councils in the region and monitors the development of relations between the EU and the GCC. Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights also closely monitors the situation in the Gulf countries.

In its current term, Parliament has adopted resolutions expressing specific concerns about the human rights situation in some GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and the return to the practice of capital punishment in Kuwait and Bahrain. Parliament has also called for greater cooperation with the Gulf Cooperation Council to manage migration. On 13 September 2017 Parliament adopted a resolution on arms exports[2], which explicitly states that it believes that arms exports to Saudi Arabia are non-compliant with at least one of the criteria outlined in EU Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment. Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought for 2015 was awarded to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.

2. Yemen

EU-Yemen relations are based on the 1997 Cooperation Agreement, covering trade, development cooperation, culture, communications and information, the environment and management of natural resources, and political dialogue. In March 2015, an international military coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched a campaign against rebels who had ousted the incumbent president. The EU supports the mediation conducted by the United Nations towards a political solution to the conflict. The Union has stepped up its assistance to address the dramatic situation in the country, where more than 82% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. The EU has committed a total of EUR 171 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen since 2015. This is in addition to the EUR 440 million earmarked for development cooperation with Yemen in the multiannual financial framework (MFF) for 2016-2020. Since February 2015, the EU Delegation to the Republic of Yemen has been operating from headquarters in Brussels.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament adopted resolutions on Yemen in July 2015[3], February 2016[4] and June 2017[5] expressing serious concern at the alarming humanitarian and security situation and calling for the effective implementation of a ceasefire. On 13 September 2017, Parliament adopted a resolution on arms exports[6], which deplores the fact that military technology exported by the Member States is being used in the conflict in Yemen. Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula is responsible for relations with Yemen and for monitoring the situation in the country.

3. Iraq

The EU has been a key provider of assistance to Iraq since the 2003 war. A Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) was signed between the EU and Iraq in May 2012. It provides a framework for dialogue and cooperation on a number of issues, including political issues, counter-terrorism, trade, human rights, health, education and the environment. Within the framework of the PCA, the first ever Cooperation Council meeting between the EU and Iraq was held in January 2014, and a second meeting took place on 18 October 2016. For the 2014-2020 period, the Commission has pledged to provide Iraq with EUR 75 million for cooperation in the areas of human rights and the rule of law, education and sustainable energy. In January 2010, the EU and Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding on energy cooperation. The Memorandum provides for cooperation on the security of energy supplies and on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

The EU supports the Global Coalition to counter the so-called Islamic State (IS) (or Daesh) in Syria and Iraq. It supports Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity and considers political inclusiveness and national reconciliation to be essential to defeating IS. Given Iraq’s deteriorating security and humanitarian situation, the Commission has increased its humanitarian assistance to the country, amounting to EUR 159 million in 2016 and EUR 72.5 million so far in 2017. Since 2015, the Commission has provided over EUR 340 million in humanitarian aid and enabled life-saving operations throughout the country.

Role of the European Parliament

Since the beginning of its current term, Parliament has adopted several resolutions on the situation in Iraq, including on the IS offensive, on sectarian violence, on the persecution of minorities, on the situation in northern Iraq/Mosul, on mass graves and on arms exports. Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Iraq holds interparliamentary meetings with Iraq’s Council of Representatives. Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for 2016 was awarded to Nadia Murad Basee Taha and Lamiya Aji Bashar, who are survivors of sexual enslavement by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and have become spokespersons for women afflicted by IS’s campaign of sexual violence. They are public advocates for the Yazidi community in Iraq, a religious minority that has been the subject of a genocidal campaign by IS militants.

4. Iran

The EU shared the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and has (through the VP/HR) supported and coordinated the E3+3 group (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Russia and the USA) in its long negotiations with Iran. A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was finally agreed in Vienna on 14 July 2015 in which Iran formally renounces the military use of nuclear energy and agrees to make substantial infrastructure transformations to make its nuclear sites for civil use only. It also accepts several important constraints regarding uranium and plutonium enrichment during the implementation period of the agreement’s main provisions (10-15 years). Some other provisions, such as on the oversight of Iran’s manufacturing of yellowcake uranium, are to last for 25 years. A robust system of inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been put in place. UN, US and EU nuclear-related sanctions were lifted on 16 January 2016 once Iran was shown to be upholding its obligations, but they can be re-imposed (‘snap-back’) if Iran breaches its JCPOA obligations. The continuous Iranian tests of ballistic and cruise missiles, although technically not in breach of the JCPOA, are a cause of alarm in the EU and beyond. Despite the growing criticism of the JCPOA by the White House, the IAEA has regularly confirmed Iran’s compliance with its provisions, and the EU has expressed its resolute commitment to its implementation. EU sanctions on the human rights situation in Iran and on its support for terrorism are not part of the JCPOA and remain in place.

Role of the European Parliament

In its resolutions, Parliament expressed strong support for finding a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and for pursuing the EU’s ‘twin-track’ approach (sanctions coupled with diplomatic negotiation). Parliament welcomed the JCPOA and has always emphasised that the nuclear issue should not distract the international community from the problem of human rights violations in Iran.

Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for 2012 was awarded to two Iranians — lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and film director Jafar Panahi.

Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Iran closely follows developments in the country, including Iran’s potential contribution to the stability of the Middle East. On 25 October 2016, Parliament approved a balanced resolution on an EU strategy towards Iran following the nuclear agreement, wishing to reinsert Iran into the world’s economy but expressing concern for its poor respect for human rights.

[1]OJ C 265, 11.8.2017, p. 98,

[2]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0344.

[3]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2015)0270.

[4]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2016)0066.

[5]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0273.

[6]Texts adopted, P8_TA(2017)0344.

Kirsten Jongberg / Fernando Garcés de los Fayos