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Exclusive-UAE seeks bilateral EU trade talks with GCC negotiations at impasse, sources say

3 min

The United Arab Emirates is quietly urging the European Union to start talks on a trade pact separate from an Arab bloc, five people familiar with the matter said, as the Gulf state seeks closer political and economic ties with Europe.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, meets with Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 7, 2023. Abdulla Al Neyadi/ UAE Presidential Court/Handout via Reuters

The United Arab Emirates is quietly urging the European Union to start talks on a trade pact separate from an Arab bloc, five people familiar with the matter said, as the Gulf state seeks closer political and economic ties with Europe.

They told Reuters that Abu Dhabi is frustrated at long-stalled trade negotiations between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), an Arab bloc that includes the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

The UAE, an influential, oil-rich Middle East state, has long advocated deeper EU involvement in the Gulf region. It is the Arab world's second-largest economy after Saudi Arabia, a major Middle East trade partner for many other nations, and its sovereign wealth funds rank among the world's most active.

Three of the sources said the UAE had not yet submitted a formal request to the EU and it was unclear whether the GCC was aware Abu Dhabi had sought to initiate a bilateral process.

Officially, the UAE continued to support the GCC-EU process, they said, although it was privately pushing for its own talks.

However, the sources said UAE officials regularly raised the idea of a bilateral trade process in meetings with counterparts from the EU and its 27 member states, including in recent weeks.

Emirati officials had brought up the matter in almost every meeting across many levels, said the sources, who asked for anonymity to discuss the matter as the details are not public.

After this story was published, a UAE Ministry of Economy spokesperson said in an emailed statement that the Gulf state was open to exploring opportunities with partners both through the GCC and on a bilateral basis.

"The UAE's CEPA (comprehensive economic partnership agreements) agenda is not only entirely consistent with GCC objectives, it acts as an important catalyst to deliver the benefits of open, rules-based trade to the whole region," the spokesperson said, referring to bilateral trade and investment deals Abu Dhabi has signed with other nations.

The EU prefers a deal with the GCC, which includes Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain, but some EU states have voiced support for a UAE deal given the lack of GCC progress, the sources said.

Failing any significant momentum by the summer, the EU could consider a bilateral process with the UAE, they said.

The GCC, headquartered in Saudi Arabia's capital Riyadh, is a longstanding alliance that seeks to encourage political and economic cooperation between the six Gulf states.

The GCC Secretariat did not respond to emailed requests for comment. A European Commission spokesperson said expert-level discussions with the GCC were continuing and that the EU had also held talks with the UAE to enhance trade and investment relations, without saying whether the sides had discussed a bilateral process.

The EU would require a new mandate from its member states to start bilateral talks with the UAE, a process the sources said could take several months. The UAE does not want to engage in simultaneous bilateral and bloc-to-bloc negotiations, they said, meaning that the EU negotiates either with the UAE or GCC.

SLOW BURN

The EU and energy-rich GCC started trade talks in 1990 that, if reached, would give companies in the European bloc better access to what is today the EU's sixth-biggest export market. However, the talks were formally suspended in 2008.

Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter and the Arab world's biggest economy, is undergoing an ambitious economic transformation that has created huge business opportunities.

A broader deal with the GCC could further open EU member states to investments from Gulf sovereign wealth funds, major cross-sector investors who take a decades-long outlook.

But the GCC has signed very few trade deals. It finalised a pact with South Korea last year, 16 years after talks started, and entered into negotiations with Britain in 2022.

The UAE has also urged London to instead engage in a bilateral process, two other sources said, declining to be identified.

The UAE has signed several bilateral trade agreements since 2022, including with India and Indonesia, and is in talks with other countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere.

Those deals, known as comprehensive economic partnership agreements, often covered investment, services, and other areas, and, in the case of India, were finalised within months.

But EU negotiations with the UAE are likely to take several years and Brussels would want human and labour rights provisions in any final agreement, the five sources said.

Reporting by Alexander Cornwell

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