A recent report suggests that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) may be looking to expand…again. The report says that, during a March summit, the group of six Arab petro-princedoms extended invitations to both Jordan and Morocco to join a pan-monarchical military alliance. And there is a chance, at least, that the GCC states would include a nominal republic, Egypt, in a broader regional military and defense pact (although it is not clear if Jordan, Morocco and Egypt would need to join the GCC or the military bloc would be a separate entity).
This report comes at a time when the GCC is attempting to move beyond being a loose economic and political grouping to form its own joint military command. The GCC monarchies may feel that they have survived the first wave of the Arab uprisings, but clearly feelings of regime insecurity remain. Several issues underlie these feelings, but among them are external and internal security threats, or at least the perception thereof. Many GCC states see the rising power of Iran as a direct threat, and they point further to Iranian influence in an axis, of sorts, extending from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The GCC monarchies are also concerned with domestic challenges, including that said to emanate from the Society of Muslim Brothers. Yet these overarching concerns, often represented as pan-GCC threats, seem most deeply rooted in one country, Saudi Arabia.
So will the GCC expand in membership, and also deepen military cooperation, to meet these threats real and perceived? Even without expanding to eight or nine states, the original six have had plenty of trouble maintaining cordial relations among themselves, much less working together in a joint military command structure. Both Oman and Qatar have long pursued foreign policies distinctly independent of the GCC, and especially of Saudi Arabia, including warmer relations with Iran, even as Saudi Arabia seems determined to forge an anti-Iranian (and, in sectarian terms, anti-Shi‘i) coalition.
In March, three GCC states — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, charging that Qatar was undermining Gulf security through its media (read, Al Jazeera) and support for Islamist movements (read, the Muslim Brothers). Qatar, however, insists that its policies are sovereign, and not to be determined by the collective wisdom of GCC regimes. The same three states — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE — followed the lead of Egypt and outlawed the Muslim Brothers. So far, however, Kuwait has not followed suit. Nor has GCC aspirant Jordan, which has a very large domestic Islamist movement, rooted in large part in the Brothers. (In addition, Jordan has a rising movement of Islamic centrists or Wasatiyya activists, salafis and independent Islamists.)
Yet the GCC remains on course to establish a joint military command, to pursue more collective defense policies, and to start receiving US arms and materiel as a group. This step would be new for the United States, too: providing military aid and selling arms not just to individual states, but also to the GCC as a bloc. So will this bloc not only hold together, but expand?
The GCC has issued similar invitations before. At the outset of the regional turmoil in 2011, the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to join the organization, and extended further economic aid to help their fellow Arab and Sunni Muslim monarchies through the challenges of the new era. States like Qatar seemed lukewarm to the idea, at best, and indeed it seems that the initial invitation, as is true of so many GCC initiatives, really came from Saudi Arabia. But once the monarchies seemed more stable, and had at least survived the first wave of change, the GCC noticeably cooled on its own offer. Meanwhile, the regime in Morocco seemed marginally interested, at best, whereas the Hashemite regime in Jordan pursued the offer with enthusiasm.
Around the region and beyond, critics see the GCC as a country club of oil sheikhs, and an expanded GCC might seem like little more than a Sunni Arab monarchy mutual aid society. But Jordan, unlike Morocco, borders Saudi Arabia. Jordan is also deeply dependent on external aid to keep the economy afloat. GCC membership offers potentially extensive aid and more: trade, investment and oil, perhaps at concessionary prices like those the kingdom enjoyed from neighboring Iraq during the sanctions years. And what could Jordan offer in return? Jordan’s comparative advantage is security support. It is no military juggernaut, to be sure. But Jordan already has extensive military, police and intelligence ties to the GCC states and others across the region. GCC membership, the Jordanians argue, would simply make official a relationship that is already there. So the relationship is perhaps not as one-sided as it might otherwise appear.
Yet questions remain. If Jordan and Morocco were to join an expanded GCC, even without the addition of Egypt, would this imply pressure on the new states to ban the Muslim Brothers? Neither has done so, and while the opposition in both countries argues that regime-initiated reforms have been superficial only, Islamist movements remain legal and active. In Jordan in particular, the Muslim Brothers are a group as old as the state itself. And while the Brothers are part of the opposition to the regime, they remain part of the legal opposition and hence part of the Jordanian public sphere.
The GCC move seems to echo a still earlier initiative, in 1991, heralded at the time as the “Damascus Declaration” alliance. After the 1990-1991 Gulf war, a “6+2” arrangement was formed at a summit in the Syrian capital, bringing the GCC states together with Egypt and Syria. That declaration, however, despite much fanfare, never amounted to more than a piece of paper. It is clear that the GCC amounts to more than that. It is not at all clear, however, that the GCC can or will make the shift to a genuine military alliance, or that it will expand beyond the original six members, and beyond the Gulf itself.