Developments Cast Doubt on Morocco GCC Membership

By Salman N. Al-Rashid

After the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) extended membership invitations to Jordan and Morocco in May, questions swirled around the diplomatic maneuver. Were Jordan and Morocco invited to join, or did they, as some news sources suggest, apply for membership? Would they join as full or conditional members? That these questions remain unanswered highlights the Council’s opacity.

Predictably, little more has been said of Jordanian and Moroccan membership. But analyzing the nature of the relationship between these countries and the GCC could reveal clues about the realistic odds that the Council expands.

In Morocco’s case, significant political opening not only betrays the GCC’s autocratic homogeneity but also has ushered in praise from—and closer ties with—the United States and Europe. Moreover, Morocco’s recent diplomatic activity has focused on repairing ties with Algeria and devoting more energy to realizing political and economic cooperation within its immediate geographic vicinity. In short, Moroccan may never join the GCC.

Morocco’s recent constitutional referendum could soon introduce democratic reforms of precisely the kind that Gulf countries seek to avoid. Gulf leaders must have begun rethinking their membership offer after King Mohammad VI’s July 30 pronouncement that Moroccans were “ushering in a new era of democracy.” Unlike King Abdullah of Jordan, who has angered liberal activists by failing to set a timeline for reforms, Mohammad declared that Moroccans must ensure that democratic institutions are operational and that “any procrastination is bound to imperil this confidence-building momentum.”

On the other hand, Gulf leaders have responded to regional political upheaval by handing out generous financial packages but refraining from making any meaningful political concessions. By allowing Morocco into its club of kings, GCC states could be sending an undesirable message to their citizens.

At the same time, should Mohammad’s reforms be implemented Moroccan citizens could have more say in the country’s diplomatic decision-making. Since many Moroccans view GCC overtures with suspicion, King Mohammad would expend considerable political capital if he were to embrace GCC membership. Do Moroccans truly want to join an alliance that, for example, could embroil them in Saudi Arabia’s strategic (and sectarian) contest with Iran 3000 miles away?

While political opening in Morocco complicates a potential GCC marriage, it also undergirds the reaffirmation of political and economic ties with America and Europe. At a June 21 press conference, White House Spokesman Jay Carney suggested that democratization in Morocco aligns with the American vision of political reform in the region, and in a July 1 statement Hillary Clinton affirmed America’s support for Moroccan leaders as they implement reforms. In turn, on July 30 Mohammad pledged to pursue cooperation with “other partners in the Americas.”

A similar dynamic exists with respect to Europe. A July 18 meeting between European Parliament member Martin Schulz and Moroccan Secretary of State Latifa Akharbach explains why. Akharbach expressed that the reinforcement of relations with the EU will “accompany the project of democratic society that Morocco is in the process of constructing” and that “democratic advances…will have positive consequences for Moroccan-EU relations.”

And much of Morocco’s diplomatic energy has been dedicated to improving ties with Europe. Since the May 15 GCC invitation, Moroccan government officials have held over sixteen meetings with representatives from European nations or the European Union.

Mohammad has also shown interest in improving ties with North African states. In his July 30 speech he called for promoting an “integrated, solidarity-based environment conducive to human and economic cooperation” amongst Mediterranean states. He tied these goals directly to Morocco’s relationship with Europe by saying that Morocco’s partnership with Europe could “serve as a source of inspiration” for the cultivation of these ties.

Related to Mediterranean ties, Morocco recently has adopted a proactive approach in repairing relations with Algeria and finally realizing the Arab Maghreb Union, a sub-regional organization akin to the GCC that has never been implemented. King Mohammad called for the promotion of security and stability, particularly in the Sahel and Sahara region.” According to a recent Reuters report, Morocco’s desire for rapprochement with its Algerian neighbor reflects its economic interest in reopening its border with Algeria, which has remained closed since 1994. Should Morocco pursue the Arab Maghreb Union, it simply wouldn’t make sense for it to serve as a member of two different sub-regional organizations.

Morocco’s strategy of reaffirming relationships with Europe, calling for cooperation across the Mediterranean, and building its own sub-regional union with Algeria as its main partner reflects the reality of its geostrategic interests. Morocco’s conduct in the last three months suggests it would rather cultivate the different facets of its natural strategic portfolio rather than run the risk of bolstering its alliance with a regional club of monarchies outside its immediate geographic area and, in effect, be subservient to those countries’ strategic interests and beholden to their actions.

Gulf leaders seem to have picked up on Morocco’s thinking. As a result, any substantial talk of Moroccan membership has tapered off for now. Recent reports indicate that in September GCC leaders will start discussing practical procedures for integrating Jordan–and only Jordan–into the GCC.

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