EU wins over Gulf’s wealthy donors with ‘behind-the-scenes’ diplomacy 

EU commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management Christos Stylianides gives a press conference to present new strengthened EU Civil Protection Mechanism called rescEU in Brussels, Belgium, 21 May 2019. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

Backroom efforts are helping to convince Gulf countries to support humanitarian aid through the UN system and support priorities including education, EU commissioner Christos Stylianides has told EURACTIV.

Over past years, numerous crises have led international donors to help the reconstruction of war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, or attend the basic needs of civilians fleeing Venezuela or Ebola-hit Congo.

But despite the fact that the EU remains by far the biggest provider of assistance in the world, “in the last decade we have seen some donor fatigue,” said Stylianides, who is responsible for humanitarian aid. 

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“That is why it is important that we get other donors to do more,” he told EURACTIV in Doha (Qatar) last Thursday (21 November), where he attended the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). 

Gulf’s fuel-rich nations have become a relevant actor to provide support, or even to facilitate it, in crisis like Irak, Yemen or Syria. 

“Some member states consider that the region is far away, but it is close, it is our neighbourhood. I think it is in our common interest to increase the EU-Gulf relations as a whole. On many issues, especially in crises such as in Syria and Iraq, we are in the same boat,” said Stylianides, moments before he met with Qatar’s Foreign Affairs minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani.

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In the case of the EU-Qatar relations, both sides signed in March 2018 a cooperation agreement to explore areas for further cooperation. Against this backdrop, a first meeting with senior officials was held last July.

Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia however traditionally disbursed their financial assistance through bilateral agreements, missing the leverage or the expertise that UN agencies or other multilateral organisations could provide. 

For that reason, the EU has undertaken a discreet effort over the past years to convince these wealthy donors to change their habits.

“Through our engagement with the countries of the region, we have encouraged them, also behind the scenes, to allocate more funding on this [humanitarian aid], but stressing the importance of this not only happening bilaterally, but also through the multilateral system,” he explained.

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The ‘backroom’ diplomacy is slowly bearing results, and not only for humanitarian assistance. 

Qatar recently provided € 66.5 million to the UN office of counter-terrorism, a move that was welcomed by Europeans. 

“It is true that in recent years, we have noticed that this shift is gradually happening,” Stylianides said.

He insisted that, if Gulf countries wanted to work with the EU, the aid has to be channelled through UN agencies and international NGOs, never bilaterally, and at the same time respecting the bloc’s humanitarian principles.


Influenced by the EU, Gulf nations are not only slowly reconsidering how they contribute to global causes, but also what those priorities are. Over the past years, they are providing more support to sustaining education during humanitarian crises, to ensure that children are not only protected today but they have better prospects for their future.

“In my visits to Gulf countries, I have witnessed more sensitivity on the issue of education, and I am encouraged by this,” Stylianides said, because education in emergencies is “my positive obsession.”

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Stylianides attended the WISE conference to share the EU’s experience on providing education during humanitarian emergencies, and to discuss with other stakeholders innovative ways to assist schools during crises.

Since Stylianides took over in 2014, the EU has increased by ten times its humanitarian budget for education. 

Today, it represents around 10% of the total EU aid, around €645 million.

“We focus on education due to its transformative nature,” he added. 

Kids not only learn how to count and read in the classrooms, schools also protect girls and children against forced marriage, gender-based violence and radicalisation.

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“In Mosul [Iraq], what once was a centre that fuelled hatred, now is a place to support reconciliation,” Stylianides said with a smile.

The EU is traditionally a big player globally in development aid and crisis response. But the bloc also wants to become a more assertive actor in the use of ‘hard power’ over the next mandate. The next European Commission aims to become a “geopolitical” executive. 

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