A New Security Strategy, but Not Necessarily a New Gulf Cooperation Council

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The Gulf Cooperation Council’s invitations to Jordan and Morocco to apply for membership surprised nearly everyone. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Since the Arab revolts began, the Gulf has adopted an aggressive regional posture. The GCC has granted Bahrain and Oman US$20 billion (Dh73.5 billion) in aid, mediated the crisis in Yemen and, perhaps most importantly, dispatched troops into Bahrain to quell the protests there.

In this context, letting Jordan and Morocco join the club makes some degree of sense. The two countries are conservative, pro-western monarchies facing domestic unrest and calls for greater democracy. After the Obama administration acquiesced to the Egyptian regime’s collapse, Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Gulf state, began doubting the United States’ commitment to regional stability. So it has taken matters into its own hands. In a time of unprecedented upheaval, the Saudis are digging in.

The economic rationale of the move is considerably less compelling. Compared to the Gulf states, Jordan and Morocco are relatively poor, with high levels of economic inequality, structural underemployment, and rampant corruption. Culturally, Jordan and Morocco couldn’t be more different than the GCC nations. And then, of course, there is the small matter of them not actually being in the Gulf. All of this suggests the GCC will not become the integrated economic union many hoped it would. Already, the 2010 deadline for establishing a common currency passed rather unceremoniously.

Focused on the threat of Iran from without and burgeoning protest movements from within, the GCC is solidifying into a loose security alliance, dominated by Saudi Arabia. Jordan, in particular, has much to offer in this domain, boasting one of the region’s best-trained militaries and intelligence services. As Gulf states face growing discontent, such services may prove particularly helpful. This “new” GCC, if it ever comes to fruition, would bear resemblance to the old alliances of the Cold War, such as the Baghdad Pact, adopted in 1955, which aimed to contain Soviet influence.

In short, while the short-term rationale is evident – security, after all, always takes precedence – adopting Jordan and Morocco as members will dilute the GCC while provoking the non-aligned “pro-democratic” states, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Qatar, Lebanon and Turkey, to do their own balancing (to say nothing of Iran). Even within the GCC, enthusiasm for the move seems to be lacking. Reportedly Kuwait, Oman and Qatar expressed reservations, suggesting that a two-tiered membership is a likely scenario. Under such a system, Jordan, Morocco – and anyone else – could aspire to a “privileged partnership” short of full membership.

With the Gulf throwing its weight and Egypt re-asserting itself as a regional force, Jordan and Morocco have been the odd men out. They are also the two countries with a reputation for intermittent attempts at liberalisation, free (if not necessarily fair) elections, and political inclusion of Islamist parties. Instead of crushing recent protests, they have opted for a strategy of selective accommodation, initiating dialogue with the opposition and revising some laws.

While it is unlikely that the monarchies in either country will voluntarily give up power, there is also little to suggest that they will resort to brute force against their own citizens. At least rhetorically, the Jordanian and Moroccan kings have committed themselves to political reform. In a major speech on March 9, King Mohammed of Morocco announced sweeping changes, including constitutional revisions and a shift toward elected, rather than appointed, governments. But in Morocco, the gap between rhetoric and policy has often been considerable. Saudi Arabia’s influence and leverage would likely put clear limits on Morocco’s democratisation process, just as it did in Bahrain.

The United States, a close ally of all the states in question, has reason to be concerned. Jordan is the second largest per-capita recipient of U.S. assistance. Morocco, meanwhile, has a multi-year $698 million Millennium Challenge Compact agreement with the United States. Saudi Arabia is stepping well beyond its traditional sphere of influence and stepping on US (and European) territory. The Obama administration, for its part, does not want to see Morocco or Jordan dragged back toward a more robust authoritarianism. But the United States, tied down by contentious budget debates at home, is unwilling to provide the kind of economic assistance that the Saudis are.

Accordingly, the already public Saudi-U.S. breach may continue to grow. A newly revitalised GCC is shifting its strategies and alliances, testing America’s traditional role as the sole guarantor of Gulf stability. Increasingly, the region is facing not just domestic upheaval but a potential “revolution” in its fundamental security architecture. But, as the Saudis themselves would point out, not all revolutions end well.