The corruption scandal known as “Qatargate,” which has recently culminated in police raids on European politicians over alleged corruption involving Qatari influence, is shaking European institutions. But as policymakers investigate possible advantages secured by Qatar through illegal means, they should look at the broader picture and seriously reassess the European Union’s reluctance to meaningfully address human rights violations taking place across the Gulf region while seeking closer bilateral ties.
Throughout the region, scores of human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and perceived critics suffer severe and pervasive state repression. Restrictive laws seriously undermine women’s and LGBT people’s rights. Likely war crimes by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led coalition in Yemen have contributed to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. And following those governments’ arm-twisting to block any inquiry at the United Nations Human Rights Council, their actions in Yemen are no longer under UN scrutiny. Meanwhile, many Gulf countries’ use of the death penalty, often following deeply flawed trials, remains a major concern, as do abuses and exploitation of migrant workers, which have tarnished the reputation of both FIFA, the world’s football governing body, and Qatar, the first Arab country to host the FIFA World Cup.
In April 2022, Human Rights Watch urged the EU Commission to consider adopting human rights benchmarks for enhanced bilateral cooperation, and closer trade and political relations with Gulf countries. But our recommendations were ignored.
In May, the commission unveiled its vision for a “strategic partnership with the Gulf,” going to great lengths to glorify purported human rights progress in several Gulf countries, while failing to identify serious shortcomings, or minimizing them as remaining “challenges.” The strategy document doesn’t even include a reference to the death penalty, perhaps the one topic on which EU member states have voiced firm opposition. Despite the document’s weak human rights language, the European Parliament and EU member states both welcomed it.
Sadly, the strategy document has reinforced the EU’s long-established approach toward Gulf countries, with business, trade, and energy interests prioritized over efforts to secure accountability for serious human rights violations. Scrutiny remains largely limited to “private diplomacy” and fruitless annual human rights dialogues. More forceful measures such as targeted sanctions or arms embargoes are nowhere in sight.
Ultimately, Qatargate is not the only “scandal” in town when it comes to EU-Gulf relations. Reassessing those partnerships should be part of the recipe to restore credibility in EU action.