In the course of last week’s meeting in Saudi Arabia, the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — extended an invitation to Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC at a future date. Coming 30 years after the GCC’s creation in 1981, the timing of the announcement as well as the nature of the two candidate countries has elicited varied responses from observers in the region.
In Morocco, the more surprising of the two candidates, considering its location relative to the rest of the GCC countries, the government expressed delight at the news. The state-run Maghreb Arab Presse notes, “The invitation from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to Morocco in order to join this organization is a ‘strong signal’ with a ‘deep meaning’ as it reflects the Kingdom's privileged position at the international level, said Morocco's Foreign Minister, Taib Fassi Fihri....Morocco has expressed its ‘full willingness to conduct extensive consultations with the GCC to set the framework for optimal cooperation with this important region of the Arab-Muslim world,’ he said.”
In Jordan, government officials welcomed the news as well. Referring to Jordanian Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit, Omar Obeidat writes in Jordan Times that he “has tasked several ministers to prepare special studies on Jordan’s accession to the [GCC].Referring to the expectations of the Jordanian people, he noted that measures to complete membership requirements will take a long time and it is still too early to talk about the benefits of the move....Last week, economists and business leaders in Jordan lauded the announcement by the GCC welcoming Jordan’s request to join the political bloc, saying the move will give a boost to the Kingdom’s economy and an added value to Gulf economies. They noted that, by joining the GCC, Jordan will receive further support from the six-country grouping to address its economic and financial woes, while the Gulf countries would also benefit from the highly qualified Jordanian human resources.”
Various commentators and editorial boards have also released statements or written opinion pieces, most of which betray a sense of surprise and apprehension about what the benefits of expansion might ultimately be. This ambivalence is certainly evident in Abdullah Al Shayji’s article in Gulf News, where he asks, “Will this alliance be a security and military alliance or an economic-political one? Is it an Arab Nato? Or a mini-Arab League, to replace the dysfunctional Arab League? What is the cost of such a move, and, more importantly, what is the added value of the expansion? Who will benefit and who will pick up the bill? What about the consequences of such a strategic shift on the GCC itself? Will it muddy the rift and bickering over economic integration and common currency?” In his view, “The decision in their recent consultative summit to extend membership to Jordan in the Levant and Morocco on the Atlantic coast, to join their exclusive club, marked a tectonic shift.”
Muna Al-Fuzai expresses shock and dismay at the news in his Kuwait Times commentary. Al-Fuzai admits he “was shocked when I, like any Kuwaiti citizen, heard the news about the Gulf Cooperation Council's decision to include two new member countries to the organization —Jordan and Morocco. The latter is not even located in Asia but in Africa and has a completely different political structure that has been marred by financial and economical problems. Both countries suffer from high levels of unemployment and poverty. The question is this: How desperately does the GCC need a country like Morocco to be part of the organization?...Also , if the GCC plans to bring more countries under its belt, does it mean that the Arab League will come to an end? The GCC is not a rich club! Even though it appears to be, let us not forget that Bahrain and Oman are not. Many Jordanians were excited at the prospect of their country joining a club of rich oil exporters.”
Reporting on the mood of Saudi citizens, Siraj Waha notes on the Saudi Arab News, “The announcement about the possible inclusion of Jordan and Morocco in the Gulf Cooperation Council is meeting with equal measures of optimism and skepticism in Saudi Arabia. Some analysts say the decision to include new members stems from political unrest in the Arab world. Some see it as a direct response to the continued Iranian initiatives to destabilize the region. Others wonder what Morocco has to do with the GCC, which up until now has been confined to six of the seven countries in the Arabian Peninsula.
The Arab News editorial also raises some questions about the GCC expansion: “That the GCC has given the green light to Morocco and Jordan becoming members comes as a complete surprise. No one imagined that this would be on the agenda at this point in time. Admitting these two states, one of which is right at the other end of the Arab world will inevitably change the nature of the GCC — which would presumably have to change its name as well. Inevitably, it raises a plethora of questions. Did Jordan and Morocco apply to join or were they invited? What do the present members expect of them? Will they be full members? How long will entry negotiations last? Will there be negotiations?”
However, there are others who believe that the expansion of the GCC reflects the growing recognition that the Council has a greater role to play in the region. The Khaleej Times editorial writes, “With the inclusion of the strategic states from eastern Arabia and North Africa, the GCC’s regional ambit is expected to widen from the Arabian Peninsula to the MENA region. This is a significant moment for the regional bloc that will turn 30, at the end of May. The six-member council that comprised the Gulf States of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain has come a long way from when it first started in 1981....There is no doubt that the GCC’s political stature is likely to grow with the inclusion of the new members. Similarly, its organizational strength in terms of economic and political weight and security commitment will also be bolstered by the new member states.”
Editorials from other regional newspapers express a similar sentiment. The daily Oman Tribune sees the move as positive: “The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has come a long way since its inception. Over the years, its six member-states have marshaled all their resources to ensure progress and prosperity for their people, bound by religious, political and cultural ties that have only grown stronger over the years….Yet another important development at the Riyadh summit was the bids by the kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC. This, no doubt, reflects the respect the grouping commands among Arab and Islamic nations.”
On Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Al-Homayed suggests the expansion is good news: “The entry of Jordan and Morocco into the GCC is not merely a superficial gesture as some say, but it disproves the argument that the GCC is an exclusive club for the rich. Politically speaking, the entry of the two monarchies Jordan and Morocco can be considered a message that the countries of the Council do not object to political reform, as Jordan and Morocco are constitutional monarchies. In addition to what is happening in GCC countries such as Kuwait, Bahrain, and elsewhere, it also means that the time for political reforms in all GCC countries has come, without exception.”
Having recovered from the surprise announcement, some have expressed different views on the motivation behind the expansion and how it might affect the region in the future. For the Peninsula editorial board the answer lies in the ongoing transformation in the region: “Leaders in the GCC appear to be seeking closer ties with counterparts outside the immediate Gulf region to help contain pro-democracy unrest. Gulf leaders are concerned that Western allies could abandon them and back reforms if protests become widespread. The GCC has already moved to help its members, pledging a total of $20 billion to Bahrain and Oman….Membership in the GCC would offer an avenue for financial support for Jordan, a nation that relies extensively on foreign investment, tourism and remittances from abroad for its revenue. While Jordan has so far been spared from protests, investors are eyeing the country nervously, fearing that tensions could escalate. The country is saddled with a record deficit of $2 billion this fiscal year, a swelling foreign debt, rising inflation and rampant unemployment and poverty.”
Mohammed Nasser in the daily Asharq Alawsat reports on a conversation with Khalid Abu al-Aynayn, a former commander of the UAE forces: “By far the more pressing aspect of this expansion is the political one. The controversial stands of neighboring Iran are a source of concern for the GCC countries, particularly since Iran only recognized the GCC recently. Some believe that any kind of Arab-Gulf rapprochement, particularly Gulf-Gulf rapprochement, is a source of concern for Iran. Jordan's accession to the GCC and the invitation to Morocco to join are sources of concern for Iran.... Khalid Abu al-Aynayn says that Iran did not recognize the GCC except recently, in Ahmadinejad's era, adding, ‘Nevertheless, any Arab cooperation, specifically Gulf-Gulf cooperation, is upsetting to Iran. Iran has short-range and long-range ambitions, and this solidarity, integration and union among the Gulf leaders, as well as the planning, will arouse Iran's anxiety.’”
Commenting on the recent acrimonious debates surrounding the Arab League summit, Alan Philps suggests, “A group of like-minded monarchies would certainly be more responsive and faster to agree than any currently conceivable line-up at the Arab League. Some commentators have seen the idea of the expanded GCC as a reaction to Egypt's more accommodating stance towards Iran, which, if Cairo once again becomes the pace-setter in Arab politics, could set the tone for the Arab League. Unfortunately, a more likely scenario is that the divisions among Arab states will continue for the foreseeable future, and continue to paralyze the Arab League.”
Others see this as a Saudi-backed initiative aimed at shoring up the stability of certain regimes in the region. Shadi Hamid writes in The National, “After the Obama administration acquiesced to the Egyptian regime's collapse, Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Gulf state, began doubting the United States' commitment to regional stability. So it has taken matters into its own hands. In a time of unprecedented upheaval, the Saudis are digging in....The United States, a close ally of all the states in question, has reason to be concerned.... Saudi Arabia is stepping well beyond its traditional sphere of influence and stepping on U.S. (and European) territory. The Obama administration, for its part, does not want to see Morocco or Jordan dragged back toward a more robust authoritarianism. But the US, tied down by contentious budget debates at home, is unwilling to provide the kind of economic assistance that the Saudis are.”
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