As Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, I headed a visit of Members of Parliament to Riyadh, Kuwait and Tehran in mid-February. My first impression of Riyadh was very positive. It is a city in motion, with many construction sites and ongoing works. I could feel that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is at a turning point in its modern history and its relations with the European Union.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, is seen as a modernizer and has already made a series of socio-economic reforms, including the establishment of an Entertainment Authority and the Vision 2030 program. The decision to lift the driving ban on women and the promised review of the male guardianship system give hope that further social change could be delivered.
The Crown Prince has also understood the importance of the youth component for the Kingdom’s future: The country has a rapidly growing young population, as 47 percent of the population is below 25 and needs to be incorporated in the national workforce as the youth unemployment rate is soaring.
Our visit took place a few weeks after Saudi Arabia opened a mission in Brussels fully dedicated to its relations with the EU and the Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also opened a whole EU department.
These moves are strong signals of an increased Saudi engagement with the EU. The latter is keen and ready to support Saudi Arabia in the implementation of its ambitious socio-economic reforms under the Vision 2030 plan.
In that view, following our visit to the Gulf, the Kingdom’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir held an exchange of views during a meeting of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs on Feb. 22 to discuss ways to enhance cooperation and the situation in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Iraq’s reconstruction, the Quartet’s crisis with Qatar and ongoing tensions with Iran.
Our relationship is strong: the EU is the first trading partner of Saudi Arabia in goods and vice versa and the Gulf State is our 15th trading partner.
The EU has developed its relations mostly at the regional level under the framework of its cooperation agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), signed in 1988.
Despite the deadlock of the negotiations for the Free Trade Agreement being suspended by the GCC in 2008, cooperation between the EU and GCC has been continuing in research, education, economic diversification and clean energy.
While in Riyadh, we held an important and fruitful meeting with GCC Secretary General, Abdullatif Bin Rashid Al-Zayani, to discuss the ongoing crisis among GCC members.
Therefore, I would like to underscore that GCC cohesion is critical to fostering regional cooperation and stability, as well as to promoting investor confidence in the region. While reinforcing EU-KSA relations is important, I believe that de-escalation in the region is a must.
Dialogue among key players must be preserved and encouraged. A stabilized region will favor prosperity and will bring further investments. For this, the European Union believes Iran’s nuclear deal must be in place.
More than ever, we should work together to ensure that de-escalation, respect and mutual understanding prevail in the region and that dialogue remains among key regional players. Further spillovers are already taking place in the region that might impact further the stability of countries in the region.
Proxy wars are also deepening the turmoil in Yemen. Therefore, there is a need to refrain from violence for the future stability of the region, and for the prosperity of future generations that represent a real asset for the whole Gulf.
David McAllister is chairperson of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs.