In May 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council—an alliance composed of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE—announced a landmark decision: after thirty years as a geographically contiguous bloc, it would broaden its membership to include the more distant, oil-poor kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan. It would also expand its mission: from a relatively limited coalition of political and economic interests, it would become a united confederation of states.
Whereas the announcement of GCC expansion was viewed as an exciting, historic development among member states and their populations, in the West it found a cool reception. Coming as it did amid the early euphoria of the Arab Spring—a time when many outsiders predicted that liberal democracies would soon emerge in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere—the news from the Gulf was viewed somewhat cynically. Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East policy in Washington, interpreted GCC expansion as follows: “The Saudis worried that if the U.S. was able to turn its back on one of its closest allies in the region when former President Hosni Mubarak left, will they do it again if unrest erupts somewhere else in the region? Who will they throw under the bus next?” Other experts characterized the decision as a desperate move by autocrats to insulate themselves from the winds of change.
Sixteen months later, the regional situation has indeed changed. Amid an Al Qaeda resurgence, chaos in Libya, an ascendant Iran and a Syrian civil war spreading beyond the country’s borders, the Arab Spring states are struggling to achieve stability. The United States is also hard-pressed; it turns out not to be so easy for Washington to chart a steady course having lost Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak as a strategic ally and anchor in the region. In this context, a reappraisal of the GCC’s expansion is now warranted. The group is swiftly coalescing into a strong, constructive actor on the Arab stage whose concerns are congruent with those of the United States. Not only can an expanded GCC serve as Washington’s partner in addressing the region’s instability; its member states can also support incremental political change throughout the Arab world—both among Arab Spring states and within the alliance itself.
Viewed as a whole, the new eight-member GCC will border every major flashpoint in North Africa and the Middle East. The Gulf states corner the southwestern portion of Iran; its nuclear-power plant in the city of Bushehr lies barely 180 miles east of Kuwait City. Jordan straddles Syria, Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Israel. And sandwiched between Jordan and Morocco —the GCC’s new outpost on the Atlantic—lie the fires of Libya and the tensions of Tunisia.