GCC expansion threatens to be a road pockmarked with pitfalls
Gulf leaders may be skating on thin ice with their willingness to embrace Jordan and Morocco as members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
If the move is designed to buttress the region’s oil-rich monarchies against the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa, the GCC is inviting two monarchs whose willingness to entertain protesters’ demands contrasts starkly with that of leaders in the Gulf.
The move is also certain to spark demands by the Arab world’s republics that constitute a majority in the Arab League to turn the GCC into a region-wide body focused initially on economics and possibly defense.
Defense as well as security may indeed be the driving motive for Gulf leaders who feel less confident about the political and military reliability of the United States, and to a lesser degree Europe.
Saudi Arabia, the largest GCC member, was taken aback when the US and Europe failed to support their long-time ally, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, whom protesters forced out of office in February. The kingdom was also upset at Western criticism of the introduction into Bahrain of Saudi-led GCC forces in the wake of anti-government protests it asserted had been instigated by Iran. Saudi Arabia is furthermore eyeing warily the recent rapprochement between post-revolution Egypt and Iran and Cairo’s improved ties to Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip and is believed to be supported by Tehran.
To be sure, inclusion of Jordan and Morocco allows the Saudi-led GCC to project itself beyond the Gulf and position itself, at least for now, as a relative island of stability in a region that promises to become increasingly volatile as countries like Egypt and Tunisia that have ousted their autocratic leaders chart a new course and embattled leaders in Syria, Libya and Yemen employ brutal violence in a desperate bid to hold on to power.
The Gulf’s military ties to Jordan, which unlike Morocco, borders on the region, run deep. Thousands of retired Jordanian officers have obtained citizenship in the Gulf where they hold senior positions in the armed and security forces.
Jordan and Morocco alongside GCC member Oman are moreover the only Arab states facing anti-government demonstrations where protesters are willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt. The protesters are demanding political and economic reform but not the abdication of their monarchs. That could change if reforms adopted by the kings of Jordan and Morocco do not go far enough or if the government’s response to protests turns violent.
Liberals and reformers in both countries worry that GCC membership will make the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchs less inclined to introduce far-reaching reform that would significantly limit their powers. That is likely to become clearer when the foreign ministers of the GCC meet with their Jordanian and Moroccan counterparts to discuss the modalities of membership.
Whichever way developments go, GCC membership could widen rather than narrow the gap between Morocco and Jordan on the one hand and GCC states on the other.
Backtracking on reforms would increase domestic tension and could turn the two incipient members into the GCC countries most affected after Bahrain and Oman by the anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. Far-reaching political liberalization would turn them into the GCC’s odd men out.
To be sure, there are economic benefits for both Jordan and Morocco in joining what is the Arab world’s rich men’s club. It would increase already significant Gulf investment in both countries, ease trade and boost both countries’ tourism industry. It would likely create enhanced employment opportunities for Jordanians and Moroccans in the Gulf and make both countries more eligible for Gulf aid to narrow gaping budget deficits.
If geographic proximity makes Jordan a relatively obvious candidate, Morocco’s location at the other end of the Arab geographic spectrum raises questions. Morocco itself pointed toward potential issues when in welcoming the GCC decision to entertain its membership it noted that it remains committed to creating a similar body in North Africa.
The Moroccan statement highlights the issue certain to be raised by Arab republics on why they would be excluded from what essentially has the makings of an Arab economic union. While that may not be on the minds of embattled regimes in Syria and Libya, it certainly must be an issue for the post-revolution governments of Egypt and Tunisia as well as Iraq who would benefit economically from GCC membership.
The issue of who qualifies for GCC membership is thrown into even sharper relief by the application of Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest states, that is building closer ties to the group in anticipation of membership. The GCC has already agreed to Yemen in a number of its councils, including those on health, education and training and soccer, with the aim to “strengthen the links between the peoples of states of the Arabian Peninsula.”
Yemen is one of the Gulf’s most populous countries with an embattled president rather than a monarch who is clinging to power at whatever cost and recently rejected a GCC effort to resolve the three-month old crisis in his country.
Expansion of the GCC, which was founded in the 1980s by six Gulf states—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman—comes at a time that the group’s founding members have yet to successfully complete economic integration and resolve rivalries and political divisions. Efforts to create a common currency hit a significant bump in the road with the UAE and Oman refusing to join.
GCC states hope to fortify themselves against the regional wave of protests and ensure that they become more self-reliant in meeting their security needs by embracing Jordan and Morocco. The chances of that strategy working are as good as the risk of it failing.
A tougher stand by the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchs could strengthen the region’s anti-protest movement and revive the GCC as a battlefield that has receded with the crushing of protests in Bahrain and the restoration of relative quiet in Oman. By the same token, introduction of reforms in Jordan and Morocco that fail to parallel developments in the Gulf could encourage liberals and reformists in the conservative Gulf states.
The division of the Arab world into a club of mostly conservative monarchs and republics that have either succeeded in toppling their autocratic leaders or are engulfed in the throes of a battle that will determine their future is moreover likely to increase regional tension and split the Arab world into rival camps.
All in all, the GCC by embracing Morocco and Jordan appears to be embarking on a risky path that could backfire if it is unable to navigate multiple pitfalls.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com)