GCC Expansion at a Time of Arab Turmoil
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.
Each member of the new GCC has a distinguished track record of mitigating neighborhood crises. Amid lethal violence in Libya and Syria, the kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan have hosted three hundred thousand refugees from those troubled lands. Jordan serves as hallowed ground for risk-averse international NGOs who wish to encounter and engage civil-society groups from Palestine and Iraq. Both Jordan and Morocco have also served as “fire departments” in the war on terror—lending troops, spies and expertise to help snuff out anti-Israel jihadists and Al Qaeda networks. Noteworthy as well is the extent to which these two cash-strapped kingdoms have supported each other in these endeavors; Morocco, for example, has endowed a military hospital at Jordan’s Syrian border to tend to victims of the Assad killing machine. Moreover, the financial viability of both countries will be ensured by a cash injection from the Gulf, initiated by Saudi Arabia, amounting to $1 billion annually for five years. This economic aid will be invaluable to both countries and partly offset the United States’ foreign-aid burden at a time when the American economy faces challenges of its own. King Mohammed VI’s visit last week to four Gulf states as well as Jordan served to underscore the cooperation between these states as well as foster Gulf business investment in Morocco and Jordan.
A desire to end Iran’s nuclear-weapons project preoccupies all eight countries. While Americans and Israelis debate the role of sanctions, sabotage and air strikes in countering Iran, the expanded GCC’s member states are prepared to support all of the above. Saudi Arabia has spoken out boldly against Iran—and invested substantially in destabilizing the country by working with its disaffected ethnic minorities, such as the Arabs of Iran’s Khuzestan province.
Another central player in the campaign to stop Iran is Morocco. The country has shown that it can facilitate military and intelligence coordination between the Gulf states and Israel, thanks to its remarkable track record; when the Gulf emirs had just begun to establish their own modern states in the 1970s, centuries-old Morocco lent the expertise of its police and intelligence apparatus to help build up these new states’ security services. This legacy earned Morocco the trust of the Gulf region in security and intelligence affairs. Meanwhile, Morocco has also cultivated warm relations with Jewish community in both the United States and Israel; the latter is home to one million Jews of Moroccan origin. If the United States, Israel and an expanded GCC come together, this powerful bloc will not only back up the carrot of diplomacy with the stick of an intimidating military threat; it will also shore up the fighting coalition that attacks Iran in the event diplomacy fails.
Whatever the outcome of the Iranian nuclear standoff, GCC members take the long view of their relationship with the Iranian interior. Their interest in diplomacy with Iran transcends the current impasse: member states hope eventually to mend fences with the country after the threat it poses, if not the regime itself, has been eliminated. To this end, the sultanate of Oman, a country ruled by a member of a sect close to Shiism, has carefully maintained ties with the Iranian population and some government elements. Qatar and the UAE have also taken great pains to do so. When eventually the United States seeks to reestablish relations with the Iranian people, their economy and perhaps their political system, GCC access to all three will prove vital.
The same logic applies to America’s strained relations with Islamist movements that now rule in Tunisia, Egypt and Gaza. The Gulf emirate of Qatar, even while hosting an American military base on its soil, has spent years building a bond with the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates throughout the Arab world. The emir’s appearance in Gaza this week, making him the first head of state ever to visit the Hamas enclave, gained Qatar—and by extension the GCC—enormous political clout among the Brotherhood leadership and its many followers. The emirate can support efforts to effect a rapprochement between these movements and Washington, and perhaps Tel Aviv as well.
Meanwhile in Morocco, the king presents a similar opportunity for a different set of reasons. Thanks to his status as the country’s highest religious authority, he enjoys a unique form of credibility as an Islamic as well as political leader. In addition to his friendship with the Jewish people, his community to the Palestinian cause is strong; witness his chairmanship of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s Quds Committee. These bona fides, combined with his close alliance with the West, enable him to broker high-level relationships between Islamist leaders and the United States.
As last year’s revolutions demonstrated, “regional stability” can be an illusory term. True stability, in the long run, requires that Arab governments accept a democratic rotation of power and Arab societies embrace a culture of tolerance and the rule of law. Herein lies a natural concern regarding the proposition that the GCC, a coalition of autocracies, should partner with the United States to resolve regional conflicts.
Yet these states have begun to show that they too can contribute to Arab political reform. The Qatar Foundation provides an example of a large philanthropic institution that supports cultural and political progress in oil-poor Arab countries. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in turn, deserve credit for having introduced real journalism and freewheeling debate into the Arab public discussion; the Qatari-backed Al Jazeera and Saudi-backed Al Arabiya have had a transformative effect on Arab television and the vast audience it reaches. The permissive environment of the UAE has provided a home base to many Arab groups seeking to build free media enterprises of their own.
What’s more, GCC expansion can also lead to accelerated reform within the group’s own ranks. Last year, Moroccan King Mohammed VI led the way by proving that an Arab kingdom can democratize without a revolutionary upheaval; a bold new constitution introduced by the king enabled free and fair elections and a power-sharing agreement between an elected prime minister and the monarchy. Jordan, too, has made strides on women’s issues, education and rural development within its borders. The presence of these kingdoms in the GCC can inject a new political dynamism into the alliance—and confound those cynics who do not recognize GCC expansion for the watershed event that it can be.
It behooves the United States, at this turbulent time, to recognize and encourage GCC expansion for its immense value. It can stabilize the region, support incremental democratic development, and counteract religious extremism and terrorism.
Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur and president of MED Radio, a national broadcast network in Morocco, MEDTV network and chairman of the board of Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya Arabic daily newspaper. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's Advisory Council.