x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

New reasons for the GCC to consider an expanded bloc

The GCC's expansion to include Morocco and Jordan makes sense on several levels.

The Gulf Cooperation Council's recent decision to formally welcome the idea of Jordan as a member of the council, and to issue an invitation to Morocco to join the group, represents a break from the past. While hardly surprising, the GCC's outreach could have significant political, economic and security consequences for both countries and for the GCC.

In Jordan's case, the unanimous agreement by the six GCC states - Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates - to call on Amman to enter membership negotiations was preceded by a number of meetings and visits by Jordanian officials to Gulf states. Jordan's King Abdullah II travelled to Qatar to improve bilateral relations that have been unstable for many years due to differences over Iran as well as relations with non-state actors, such as Lebanon's Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement. Until recently, Qatar had banned the issuance of work visas or important investment contracts to Jordanians.

Jordan's prime minister, Maarouf Bakhit, also recently delivered a royal message to Kuwait's emir, containing economic requests linked to increasing energy prices and Jordan's financial crisis.

The announcement of these invitations comes amid recent political developments in the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco and in the Gulf states. Some observers consider the outreach to Jordan and Morocco a departure from the GCC's previous position, given that other states such as Yemen and Iraq - which are geographically closer - had sought to join the GCC but did not receive a positive response. Yemen was turned aside because of its small economy, while Saddam Hussein's regime and the disregard he showed for the regional bloc hurt Iraq's interests.

Jordan's difficult economic conditions, however, have provided a wide space for political mobilisation. The monarchy has responded to demands for change by adopting a more liberal tune regarding political reform. King Abdullah has formed commissions to examine the constitution and the powers entrusted to the king, and opened forums for national dialogue to study electoral and party laws.

As Jordan's economic crisis deepens and the state loses its ability to meet growing demands from public and private-sector workers and the unemployed, political demands are becoming increasingly strident - a factor that threatens the regime's stability. A partnership with such a rich regional bloc could ease the country's current economic pressures.

Given these developments, the GCC's acceptance of Jordan's request and its invitation to Morocco could help both countries delay answering growing political demands. Membership, if it occurs, implies the potential for improved economic conditions, greater financial stability and additional job opportunities - addressing the foremost challenges facing the two kingdoms.

Already, both Morocco and Jordan have seen calls for new forms of governance - based on stronger legislative institutions and limits on the king's absolute powers - that aim to create a "constitutional monarchy". Furthermore, there have been demands from opposition parties in both countries for an end to the role of unconstitutional institutions and committees, and for limits on the role of security agencies to ensure they stay out of political affairs.

The GCC's announcement can also be read in light of the security role that Jordan could play for the Gulf states in confronting Iran's growing influence and its appetite to interfere in the Gulf. This was apparent during the recent events in Bahrain, when the Gulf states' Peninsula Shield forces intervened to stop protests. While this military intervention so far has helped Bahrain achieve stability, the addition of Jordan's well-trained military force would be beneficial in contributing to similar missions in the future. Adding Morocco's contribution would further harden the GCC's position relative to Iran.

All of these factors explain the timing of the Gulf announcement. It is not the first time the subject of GCC expansion has been raised by both the member countries and those aspiring to join this wealthy club; what is new is the positive response to such suggestions and the states that have been invited. As for membership conditions, they will not exceed the traditional forms of cooperation between Arab states. While trade and movement of capital, commodities and individuals already occur on the basis of regulatory agreements, these could be expanded and institutionalised to give the newly acceded countries advantages over non-members, such as Lebanon and Egypt, which already compete in the GCC market.

The GCC has been reluctant to admit new states in the past because of its desire to remain a closed club, open only to those members who share many commonalities. The GCC's members also were divided on whether to expand the regional bloc. But it appears that domestic and regional conditions now require new forms of cooperation among some of the region's states.

The financial consequences of admitting new members to the GCC will certainly not overburden the Gulf states' financial surplus, as Jordan and Morocco total only 10 per cent of the GCC's gross domestic product. In return, the GCC needs security assistance to maintain stability, even if only temporarily.

Even with benefits for both sides, admission of Jordan and Morocco to the GCC is likely to proceed gradually, as doubts exist about its consequences, especially given the cultural differences between the Levant and Morocco and the more conservative Gulf. However, such fears are tempered by the fact that some of the Gulf states have coexisted successfully with different cultures in past decades. The formula of providing security to the GCC in return for economic assistance to Jordan and Morocco marks a new era of cooperation in a region that is experiencing many firsts this year.

 

Ibrahim Saif is a resident scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut