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 and there is no EU Delegation in Tehran.

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 European Union (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 are undergoing considerable socio-economic and political changes, although the progress of reform 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 some of 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, including through Human Rights dialogues, EU-GCC relations have largely been defined by economic and trade ties. Trade volumes between the two sides grew steadily between 2007 and 2015, but have dropped slightly since 2015.

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. The agreement makes no provision for a parliamentary body. In April 2016, the EU-GCC Joint Cooperation Committee agreed to establish a more structured informal dialogue on trade and investment. This was followed in July 2016 by the EUGCC joint council and ministerial meeting. The diplomatic crisis that erupted in June 2017 between Qatar and the other Gulf countries has prevented new meetings from being convened.

The EU and the GCC agreed on a Joint Action Programme for 2010-2013, setting out a roadmap for closer cooperation in areas 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[1] 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[2].

Parliament’s Delegation for relations with the Arab Peninsula holds regular interparliamentary 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 recent years, Parliament has adopted resolutions expressing specific concerns about the human rights situation in some GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia[3] and Bahrain[4], and the return to the practice of capital punishment in Kuwait and Bahrain[5]. Following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Parliament adopted a resolution[6] condemning the murder, calling for an international, independent and impartial investigation into his disappearance and extrajudicial killing and urging the Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all human rights defenders.

Parliament has called several times for an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, given the serious allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia in Yemen[7].

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 UN towards a political solution to the conflict.

On 18 February 2019, the Council of the EU adopted conclusions on Yemen, reaffirming its commitment to the unity, sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Yemen. The EU supports the ‘Stockholm Agreement’ reached between representatives of the Yemeni parties under the auspices of the United Nations in December 2018 and the UN-led political process with a view to ending the conflict and fostering an improved regional environment.

The Union has stepped up its assistance to address the dramatic situation in the country, where more than 80 % of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. The EU has committed a total of EUR 439.2 million in humanitarian aid to Yemen since 2015. This is in addition to the EUR 323 million in long-term assistance that the EU has provided so far. The EU’s overall contribution to Yemen across all areas of support has exceeded EUR 1 billion since 2015.

Since February 2015, the EU Delegation to the Republic of Yemen has been operating from EEAS headquarters in Brussels.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament adopted resolutions on Yemen in July 2015, February 2016, June 2017, November 2017 and 4 October 2018[8] 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[9], 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 Arabian 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, counterterrorism, 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 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.

The EU adopted a new strategy for Iraq in January 2018. The strategy focuses on delivering continued EU humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people and facilitating the stabilisation of areas liberated from the Islamic State (IS) group (Daesh), with 3 000 000 displaced Iraqis still unable to return home. It also seeks to address the reform, reconstruction and reconciliation efforts in the longer term that Iraq needs to pursue in order to consolidate peace and build a united, democratic country in which all citizens can fully enjoy their rights in greater prosperity.

Since 2014, the EU has provided over a billion euros in response to the crisis: EUR 435.27 million in humanitarian aid; EUR 320 million in development funding; EUR 150.9 million from the EU Regional Trust Fund (EUTF) in response to the Syrian crisis; EUR 42.6 million in crisis response assistance from the Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP) and EUR 6.5 million from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) and civil society organisations.

Role of the European Parliament

In recent years Parliament has adopted several resolutions on the situation in Iraq[10], including on the IS offensive, on gender violence, on the persecution of minorities, on the situation in northern Iraq/Mosul, on mass graves, on education, on the destruction of cultural sites by IS 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 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, through the Vice President / High Representative (VP/HR), supported and coordinated the E3+3 group (France, Germany, the UK, China, Russia and the US) in its long negotiations with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was finally agreed in Vienna in July 2015, and in January 2016, once Iran was shown to be complying with its obligations, international nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were lifted. In addition to a number of limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities, the JCPOA put in place a comprehensive and strict system of inspections and monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

However, the continuing Iranian tests of ballistic and cruise missiles, although technically not in breach of the JCPOA, are a cause for concern in the EU and beyond, as is Iranian support to armed groups across the Middle East. Citing these concerns and perceived weaknesses of the deal, the US decided to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement in May 2018 and had fully re-imposed its nuclear-related sanctions on Iran by November 2018. In July 2019, Iran began violating its obligations under the JCPOA, gradually exceeding an increasing number of its limitations, as confirmed by the IAEA. The EU (along with the remaining E3+3 members) has been committed to the implementation of the JCPOA and to pursuing trade with Iran, but is increasingly worried by the latest developments. The EU has voiced support to the Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), established by the E3 countries (the UK, France and Germany) in January 2019 with the aim of allowing European exporters and importers to pursue legitimate trade with Iran in spite of US sanctions. At the same time, EU sanctions related to the grave human rights situation in Iran are not part of the JCPOA and remain in place. In January 2019, the EU also adopted sanctions in response to Iran’s hostile activities on European territory, adding the Iranian intelligence service to the EU terrorist list. In November 2019, the VP/HR condemned the disproportionate use of force against protesters.

Role of the European Parliament

Parliament has been a firm supporter of the JCPOA and of the resulting renewed engagement with Iran, as it stressed in its 2016 resolutionon the EU strategy towards Iran after the nuclear agreement. At the same time, Parliament has been vocal about the serious violations of human rights in the country and the situation of human rights defenders. In 2012, the film director Jafar Panahi and the lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh were awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In its resolution of May 2018, Parliament strongly condemned the imprisonment of EU-Iranian dual nationals following unfair trials, and in further resolutions of December 2018 and March 2019, it called for the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights defenders, including Nasrin Sotoudeh, and prisoners of conscience. It reverted to the human rights situation in Iran in September 2019, denouncing the lack of progress on the detained dual nationals, and speaking out against the harassment, arbitrary arrest, detention and prosecution of women’s rights defenders in particular.

Parliament established a delegation for relations with Iran in 2004. Seven inter-parliamentary meetings (IPMs) took place over the years. The conclusion of the JCPOA in July 2015 in particular led to a revival of relations, starting with a visit from EP President Schulz in Tehran in November 2015. The last IPM took place in September 2018 in Brussels. The Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a delegation to Iran in February 2018. In February 2016, Foreign Minister Zarif spoke at a meeting of the committee in Brussels.


[6]Text adopted P8_TA(2018)0434.

Michal Jiráček / Kirsten Jongberg