Explaining GCC Expansion

By Salman Al-Rashid

In mid-May the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) extended membership invitations to both Jordan and Morocco. Two months later, the expansionist maneuver continues to perplex.

Translated summaries of various GCC summits explain why. At a 1981 GCC meeting representatives emphasized the “similarity of the economic and social development” of Persian Gulf states. Documents stress the need to “codify the provisions of Islamic Sharia.” Referring to ex-pat issues, members at a 1997 session studied the “reform of the imbalance in the demographic structure.” Other meetings discussed the objectives of economic diversification beyond oil exports. Many of these issues simply do not apply to Jordan or Morocco.

Moroccan membership specifically would betray certain foundations of the GCC’s economic identity. Several of the GCC’s joint economic ventures and projects actually require states to be contiguous. For example, in various meetings representatives discussed ideas such as the “principal of movement,” “the removal of barriers,” and the facilitation of economic and human traffic across borders critical to the GCC joint market concept. Other sessions dealt with the need for common water, electricity, railway, and optical cables links.

Marc Lynch suggests that by seeking to add two monarchies to its ranks, the GCC is becoming the “institutional home of the counter-revolution.” But this argument simplifies the GCC’s stance on popular unrest in non-GCC states. The Saudis welcome the downfall of Qadhafi and remain silent while uprisings in Syria threaten a regime that hasn’t been amenable to their goals in Lebanon.

The GCC expansion is a classic case of safeguarding interests in a time when Arab monarchies in the Middle East are worried about internal and foreign threats. On the sub-regional level, the inclusion of Jordan resembles a selective case of counter-protest akin to the Bahrain intervention that serves the GCC’s interest in monarchy-preservation. On the broader strategic level, the attempt to add both Jordan and Morocco is a response to two critical external developments: America’s declining profile and abandonment of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak; and the perennial Iranian threat.

Jordanian Membership: Reactionary Tendencies

By helping control protests in Bahrain, the GCC has demonstrated its opposition to political reform in its neighborhood during a time of regional unrest.

A closer look at potential Jordanian membership indicates a mutual interest in sub-regional counter-protest. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently announced that government posts and parliament seats would be decided by elections rather than appointment but, much to the dismay of liberal activists, did not specify when these changes would take effect. In this context, Jordan’s enthusiastic response to the GCC’s overtures is revealing.

Membership in the GCC could secure economic benefits and security guarantees for Jordan that would help King Abdullah buy and preserve stability. Membership in the Council could intensify much-needed aid packages to a country with a sizeable budget deficit and facilitate the flow of energy (the Saudis have promised energy shipments along with $1.4 billion in aid in recent weeks). Moreover, it would facilitate Jordanians’ access to lucrative labor markets in the Gulf region.

Expected Jordanian membership comes at a time during which security cooperation both within the GCC and between the GCC and Jordan is growing. Although the GCC created a joint military force called the Peninsula Shield in 1984, the Gulf War compelled the Council to codify and formalize the security relationships amongst its members. At a 1992 meeting, members re-emphasized the need to promote the “concept of collective security” and in 1994 agreed to increase the Peninsula Shield’s “ability to respond to crises” and to “raise its combat effectiveness.” As recently as December 2010, the Supreme Council a “unified strategy” for the GCC and Peninsula Shield.

The intervention in Bahrain and likely security cooperation with Jordan means this unified strategy, in addition to deterring external aggression, is preserving monarchic orders in the Gulf region. A New York Times article reported that both Saudi Arabia and the UAE moved some of their army and police training facilities from Egypt to Jordan in May. And as Jordan seeks integration into the GCC, the Council will harness Jordan’s military and intelligence capabilities to solidify the Peninsula Shield’s ability to combat internal threats, as was the case in Bahrain.

Jordanian and Moroccan Membership: Strategic Depth

GCC expansion, however, is just as much a reaction to developments beyond GCC borders. In this vein, the perennial Iranian threat is especially relevant now that relations between the GCC’s heavy hitter, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have cooled significantly. The doctrinal rivalry between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia fuels tensions, and the GCC seeks to augment its anti-Iran credentials by adding two Sunni monarchies into its fold.

The potential addition of Morocco is especially relevant. Morocco cut ties with Iran in 2009 after an Iranian politician identified Bahrain as Iran’s fourteenth province. Days later, the Moroccan government was reportedly infuriated with Iran’s alleged attempts to propagate Shiite doctrine in the Sunni kingdom. A former UAE military commander recently suggested that any gain or expansion of the GCC is a setback to Iran. Within this context, Iran would naturally see GCC wooing of Morocco as a strategic concern.

The invitation to Morocco further represents an attempt to bring a pro-Western power into the GCC at the expense of what many see as an unreliable US ally. Rather than rely on the Americans who abandoned Mubarak, the GCC is building its own alliance structure, diversifying its strategic portfolio, and bolstering its credibility as a relevant regional actor.

This is where a brief comparison with the Arab League is illuminating. From a bureaucratic, decision-making perspective, an expanded GCC not only would have a clear leader in Saudi Arabia but also would be comprised of monarchic regimes that can swiftly reach consensus on pressing diplomatic and security issues.

The Arab League garners its reputation as a powerless organization because its member states fear that espousing regional intervention would compromise their own sovereignty.  GCC action in Bahrain illustrates that the intervention-sovereignty tradeoff that explains the Arab League’s inactivity may not be as constraining to GCC states, all of whom would have an interest in preserving each others’ monarchic structure.

By reaching into the Levant and Maghreb, the GCC could emerge as an inclusive (and somewhat diverse) rather than adversarial regional entity. Beyond countering Iran, it can assert itself as an arbiter of regional disputes, act as a bulwark to great-power meddling, and cultivate its own narrative of regional events.

Will the Expansion Plan Work?

In mid-June King Mohammad VI of Morocco’s decided to initiate a series of political reforms and claimed that Morocco will embark on a “democratic course.” A vast majority of Moroccans, many of whom viewed the GCC invitation with suspicion, voted to approve the proposed changes.

This development, along with the Moroccan government’s guarded response to the GCC invitation in May, raises the question: would Morocco really join the GCC? Morocco enjoys economic and geostrategic affinity to Europe and the Arab Maghreb respectively and, unlike Jordan, has not applied for membership in the past and shares no borders with GCC states. Would King Mohammad expend political capital on an unpopular move?

The GCC’s notorious opacity means questions will remain unanswered for now. And whether or not King Mohammad is serious about reform remains to be seen. Rather than characterize the GCC as a regional villain, it’s best if we consider the domestic and regional concerns that have made the GCC seek new members. Expansion is not just a reaction to the Arab Spring.

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