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Europe is discarding human rights concerns and reaching out to energy-rich Middle East

Gulf States’ refusal to side with the West and ramp up oil production is less about Russia and more about a fundamental tenet of pursuing national interest.

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Europe’s approach to human rights has never been more precarious than now, when energy weaponisation and attacks on critical infrastructure have exposed vulnerabilities like never before. Major European economies, such as Germany, are re-calibrating their approach to the ‘undemocratic’ and ‘illiberal’ energy-rich Middle East, shedding the label of ‘custodian of human rights and democracy’.

With dwindling gas flows, Nord Stream sabotage, and the looming threat that oil flows will suffer the same fate as gas flows under a recalcitrant Vladimir Putin, Europeans appear to have little choice.

How intrinsic is Europe’s commitment to global human rights?

When looking inward, Europe is guided by a human rights and values-based worldview, but when looking outward, it is guided by a dry pragmatism and national interest-based worldview.

The value-based order at the heart of  Europe is supposed to guide the EU’s internal  and external action , but nothing could be further from the truth. Values are upheld only as long as they do not jeopardise Europe’s interests. Could this, in plain terms, be termed double standards? 

Corporatisation of the European democratic model

While there is an impressive human rights clause  in EU trade agreements, the term ‘principle-based pragmatism’ was used in the EU 2016 Global Strategy document, which effectively means that pragmatism, not principles, is the deciding factor for Brussels.

Hence, the notion that Europeans give priority to their practical interests rather than values is correct. This duality has manifested yet again after the German chancellor Olaf Scholz went touring the Gulf region in search of diversifying energy supplies.

Also read: ‘Powerful explosions’ caused Nord Stream gas pipeline leaks, Denmark echoes claims of sabotage

Europe’s interests and the Gulf

Not long ago, Russia’s energy supplies were stable, gas flowed freely through Nord Stream 1, and a massive increase in supplies through the newly constructed Nord Stream 2 promised to boost Europe’s prosperity, stability with Putin was prioritised.

By joining the US in condemning Saudi Arabia for the infamous murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, the EU and its major economies – Germany  and France  – could indeed afford a high moral ground.

Angela Merkel’s government was quick to limit  weapons exports to Saudi Arabia that had been rising dramatically. Jane’s Defence estimated that the Middle East and North Africa had accounted for 40 per cent of German arms exports by 2018.

Furthermore, Merkel’s cabinet approved a Supply Chain Act in 2021, a due-diligence law to enforce human rights and environmental standards along global supply chains. 

Interesting to note that at both these occasions, the current chancellor Scholz served as the Vice Chancellor and Federal Minister of Finance from 2018 to 2021. Then came the dreaded war that Europe thought was unthinkable, and everything changed.

Also read: Russia ready to restart supply, ball in EU’s court: Putin on gas supply via Nord Stream 2 pipeline

Europe-Gulf reset

On 24 September, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz paid his first visit to the Gulf countries in search of alternative sources of gas as tensions with Russian supplies continue to rise. Scholz was accompanied by a large business delegation  on his trip, during which he met the Saudi Crown Prince and visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar.

Scholz’s visit places him along the western leaders who are seen as readjusting their stance toward Saudi Arabia post the Khashoggi scandal. The murder, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 triggered a diplomatic crisis between Riyadh and the West, and the Crown Prince became increasingly isolated on the international stage.

Running with the hare and hunting with the hounds:

Being Europe’s largest economy, Germany is in need of new oil and gas supplies, but without being seen as too soft on human rights violations. Therefore, the Chancellor’s visit is being called a diplomatic balancing act. Despite the fact that human rights violations are a major issue in the region, Germany avoided putting too much emphasis on them while exploring energy supply options in the Gulf.

Berlin is also on the lookout for sources of green hydrogen production using renewable energies that it may hope to source from the Gulf. Saudi Arabia – although an oil producing state – aims to be the largest natural gas exporter by 2030 owing to its massive reserves. From that perspective, Scholz’s visit to the region is being seen as a timely endeavour.

The real feather in Scholz’s cap, however, was his visit to the UAE. Germany and UAE have intensified their cooperation in the energy sector with the visit of Federal Economics Minister Robert Habeck in March this year. 

The UAE is an appealing energy trade partner, both for supplying natural gas to Berlin and for expanding joint collaboration in hydrogen research and production. Habeck’s visit paved the way for German firms to sign five MoUs with the UAE concerning hydrogen research and development. Therefore, Scholz’s visit to the UAE was most fruitful and significantly added to the groundwork laid during Habeck’s visit. 

The most recent outcome saw the German multinational energy company RWE sign a deal with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) to deliver liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe’s largest economy by the end of this year.

It should be noted that the cargo to be delivered this year will be for 1,37,000 cubic metres of LNG and will be the first LNG to be supplied to the German gas market via the Brunsbüttel floating LNG import terminal near Hamburg. A floating import terminal Brunsbüttel FSRU, was proposed in February this year in the wake of the European gas crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine. The deal with Abu Dhabi also includes a memorandum of understanding for a multi-year supplies of LNG.

Germany’s two new planned floating LNG terminals will eventually be able to receive up to 12.5 billion cubic metres of LNG a year, equivalent to about 13 per cent of the country’s gas consumption in 2021.

This marks an important milestone in building LNG supply infrastructure in Germany and setting up diversified gas supplies from the globe. Berlin hopes that more LNG deals on similar lines as with Abu Dhabi will help ease the skyrocketing prices of energy

Under Germany’s energy diversification efforts, Scholz also visited Qatar, host of the Football World Cup 2022. Not having an impressive record in human rights, in Qatar, about 5,000 workers lost their jobs due to difficult conditions to prepare for the World Cup.

Important Football clubs in Europe and the world took a stand on this issue, but not the EU. With glaring human rights abuses, Scholz’s visit to Qatar is yet again a delicate balancing act.

Also read: Russia’s energy war: Putin’s unpredictable actions and looming sanctions could further disrupt oil and gas markets

Challenges ahead

A shocking, unprecedented turn in gas pipeline politics came two days after Scholz embarked on his trip to the Gulf. On 26 September, mysterious ruptures were spotted in Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines in the Baltic Sea with no credible explanation except sabotage of what led to these ruptures. The tremendous amount of natural gas spillage into the Baltic Sea ever since has complicated the prospects of gas flowing through the Nord Streams to Europe again.

The EU is rushing to improve energy infrastructure security, and countries such as Norway  have already begun to deploy military capabilities to protect their oil and gas installations.

On their part, Gulf States’ refusal  to side with the West against Russia and more recently, refusing to ramp up oil production to ease the oil price – is less about Russia and more about a fundamental tenet of pursuing national interest. It is a reminder that states prefer a transactional approach to safeguarding national interests in order to avoid the costs of strategic alignment. 

In the bigger picture of navigating the course of complex  global politics, such pragmatism remains key to understanding mutually exclusive but simultaneously co-existing contradictions.

The writer is an Associate Fellow, Europe and Eurasia Center, at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. She tweets @swasrao. Views are personal.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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