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When it Comes to Middle East Diplomacy, Chinese and European Interests Align

Mehran Haghirian

Bourse & Bazaar Foundation

June 2, 2023


A version of this article was originally published in French in Le Monde.


In March, China managed to a broker a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, achieving a diplomatic breakthrough that had eluded European governments. But Europe and China have shared interests in the region and there is scope for the two powers to work together to foster further multilateral diplomacy.


Europe and China, which both depend on energy exports from the Persian Gulf, have long relied on the US-led security architecture in the region. But the 2019 attacks on oil tankers in the UAE and oil installations in Saudi Arabia, widely attributed to Iran, were a watershed moment. Shifting US interests and President Trump’s erratic reaction to those attacks forced the Chinese and Europeans to take more responsibility for regional security over the last four years.


In 2020, China presented its idea for regional security in the Persian Gulf, arguing that with a multilateral effort, the Persian Gulf region can become “an oasis of security.” In the time since, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, signed in March, can be considered an outcome of such efforts.


European governments have also sought to back multilateral diplomacy. France was intent on creating a platform for Tehran and Riyadh to engage in dialogue. President Macron helped launch the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership that was held in August 2021. The conference was a unique opportunity to gather countries that had not sat around the same table for years. Officials from Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, in addition to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and France participated. Oman and Bahrain joined the second gathering which took place last December in Amman, Jordan.

The European Union also expressed its support for the Baghdad process. Joseph Borrell saidduring the Second meeting that “promoting peace and stability in the wider Gulf region… are key priorities for the EU.” Adding that “we stand ready to engage with all actors in the region in a gradual and inclusive approach.”


The Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council on a strategic partnership with the Gulf reflects the EU’s keenness on expanding its engagements with the region, particularly on economic ties. The partnership is focused on the GCC, but it mentions that “involvement of other key Gulf countries in the partnership may also be considered as relations develop and mature”—a reference to Iran and Iraq.


Clearly, China and the European Union have multiple areas of mutual concern in the Persian Gulf region. Ensuring freedom of navigation, the undisrupted flow of oil and gas from the region, and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons are shared priorities. But while China is now a central player in the strategic calculations of all states in the region, the Europeans are being largely left out.


European diplomatic outreach has faltered in the face of new political pressures arising from Iran’s continued nuclear escalations, its involvement in Russia’s war against Ukraine, and its repression of ongoing protests for democratic change.


The French president was coincidently in China when the Beijing Agreement was signed, and he welcomed the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Given shared interests, European officials must now find ways to engage with Chinese counterparts on fostering greater regional diplomacy in the Persian Gulf.


There are reports that a regional summit will take place in Beijing later this year, involving all GCC states, Iran and Iraq. This is an important opportunity for multilateral dialogue and cooperation. European governments should consult with regional players and China to secure a seat at the meeting. The EU can help regional countries find ways to jointly tackle basic issues that have impeded economic growth which have resulted in spillover effects such as increased food insecurity and inability to mitigate the rising challenges of climate change.


In parallel, the Baghdad Conference could emerge as an EU-backed platform for economic cooperation in tandem to the now ongoing political and security dialogue process in China. The EU can draw in regional countries to help with reconstruction efforts in Iraq, a country that is in dire need of foreign investment. Given the shuttle diplomacy conducted by Iraqi officials between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and considering the role of France and the EU in the Baghdad conference, it would be apt to explore EU-supported joint economic projects in Iraq, especially those projects that create mutual economic interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Whether in Baghdad, Amman, or Beijing, inclusive regional gatherings are needed to address common economic challenges facing all eight countries surrounding the Persian Gulf. Europe can make significant contributions towards regional dialogue on economic integration by helping to create multilateral platforms, transfer knowhow and technology, and provide financial support. These are areas where China has significantly increased its activities, but European countries enjoy far greater experience in establishing the institutions and infrastructure needed for regional economic development. European officials can leverage this experience to support regional diplomacy. Such efforts would also cement European regional influence at a time when US influence may be waning.


The newly appointed EU Special Representative for Gulf Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, should directly oversee and coordinate initiatives in support of economic diplomacy and integration in the region, finding common ground with China to head off competition. Achieving security through stronger diplomacy and deeper economic ties represents a transformative goal that the region can rally around.



Photo credit: European Union 2023/Dati Bendo


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