Paul Pillar

The Multipolar Middle East

The Gulf Cooperation Council, whose current members are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, is soliciting membership applications from Jordan and Morocco. Jordan had unsuccessfully applied for membership in the past; Morocco has never shown any such interest. If this expansion of the GCC takes place, it will make the organization's name rather odd—especially with Morocco, which is about 3,000 miles and six countries away from the Persian Gulf. But then again, Turkey is about that far away from the Atlantic and nonetheless is a member of what is still called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The GCC's outreach to the two prospective members has been interpreted largely in terms of the Gulf states feeling more vulnerable these days amid the Arab Spring, their worry about Iran and about encirclement by Shias, and their desire to expand supportive ties with two countries that happen to have had substantial relations with the Gulf largely in the form of expatriate workers. That is all true, but the expansion follows in line with what the Gulf six had already been trying to do in turning their grouping into more of a well-integrated NATO-like alliance instead of just another regional organization. The members are currently reviewing plans to expand their joint military force called Peninsula Shield. If they can do more in this direction and make it stick, they will have succeeded where other alliances and would-be alliances among Arab states have failed at the first sign of one of their members doing something divisive. (Jordan had been part of an earlier grouping, along with Egypt, Iraq, and North Yemen, called the Arab Cooperation Council. The short-lived ACC, which was established partly as a counterpoint to the GCC, fell apart when Iraq invaded Kuwait.) The GCC also has been exhibiting EU-envy with integrative ideas such as a customs union and common currency, although so far they are more ideas than reality. In some EU-style symbolism, however, the GCC secretary-general recently announced that the organization's flag would fly alongside national flags at all of the member states' ports of entry.

Probably the GCC is best thought of—and this is where the reaching out to Jordan and Morocco becomes more understandable—as an Arab monarchs' club. And more specifically, it is a mostly Sunni monarchs' club. (The one exception is Oman's Sultan Qaboos, who like most of his countrymen is an Ibadi Muslim, which means he is not Sunni but also not Shia.)

So what should the United States, and other outside powers, make of all this? The current GCC members and Jordan and Morocco all have relatively good relations with the United States. If they want to be treated as a bloc and for some of the interaction with them to be multilateral and not just bilateral, that's fine, even if the GCC takes a more geographically diverse, expanded form. But a more general lesson is that such a bloc demonstrates anew the mistake of treating the Middle East, as Americans are wont to do, in bifurcated terms—moderates vs. extremists, good guys vs. bad guys, reform-minded regimes vs. non-reform-minded regimes, or whatever. The GCC comprises mostly good guys as far as relations with the United States are concerned, but the monarchs' club may be on the wrong side of history when it comes to internal political change. The notion of the Middle East divided into two camps never conformed to reality or to Middle Easterners' own view of their region. The development of the GCC as a basically pro-western but in some ways regressive bloc is, set against the fluidity of the Arab Spring, part of what makes the region a necessarily complicated, multipolar place.