When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established in 1981, the London Economist accurately coined the term 5+1 to describe how the five smaller Arab countries [Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE] aligned with Saudi Arabia to preserve and protect regional security. For 30 years, the quest for security remained constant, even as significant progress was recorded on various economic and military questions.
What never wavered was the range of inequities among member-states even if all six professed basic religious, linguistic, tribal, monarchic, and social commonalities. Unlike the agonising League of Arab States (1945- ), the moribund Arab Maghreb Union (1956- ), which grouped Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, or the ill-fated Arab Cooperation Council (1989-1990), which assembled four countries with little in common [North Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt], the GCC managed to articulate a vision even if its record was far from stellar.
Still, when Secretary-General Abdul Latif Al Zayani revealed last week that the GCC was considering membership applications from both Jordan and Morocco, the decision came as a total surprise. Was this a Saudi manoeuvre to control Gulf security by creating an alliance that regrouped the eight surviving monarchies? Would the GCC transform itself into a 6+2 outfit or, more likely, coral Arab monarchies into a 7+1 powerhouse?
Back in 1981, the six conservative Arab monarchies joined forces to specifically respond to the manifold challenges in the aftermath of the February 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan later that same year, and the eight-year-long and largely meaningless Iran-Iraq war that started in 1980.
At the time, few appreciated the ominous spillover effects of the Iranian Revolution, though most assumed that Tehran placed preponderant security interests above all else. Indeed, GCC governments shared with both Iran and Iraq a singular objective, namely the uninterrupted export of oil at reasonable prices.
Few anticipated an existential confrontation as most accepted Omani Ruler Sultan Qaboos Bin Saeed's impeccable rationalisation: focus on long-standing relationships between the peoples of Iran and those across the Gulf. Muscat stood firm in its opposition to Iraq before and after Saddam Hussain, and seldom minced words in private when Tehran criticised it for independent positions.
The Sultanate emphasised diplomacy as it guided Tehran towards a more inclusive approach even if this was a minority perspective within the GCC where few tolerated reckless Iranian claims that it literally owned the Gulf region.
Not surprisingly, aggressive Iranian policies encouraged GCC states to embark on defensive measures, to protect their security and political systems. Equally important, and wary of long-term Iranian goals for the region, Riyadh rejected diplomatic assurances that Tehran harboured nothing but good intentions towards its Gulf neighbours. Rather, it pointed to recent Iranian interferences in internal GCC affairs, as evidence that such pledges were not credible.
It is within this specific context that the trial balloons of potential Jordanian and Moroccan invitations to join the GCC must be understood. Indeed, there are no doubts that GCC rulers, led by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz, oppose Iranian moves to determine the fate of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
By intervening militarily in Bahrain, in what was widely claimed to be an attempt to stop Iranian prying in the domestic affairs of a GCC member-state, Riyadh signalled its clear perception that the security of the kingdom was an integral part of the security of every GCC member-state.
Still, a number of questions arise, and these must be discussed over the next few years — certainly before any country is added to the membership roster.
Although a 7+1 GCC would cluster eight monarchies, will significant differences among them doom this putative alliance? For example, Jordan and Morocco enjoy healthy parliamentary lives that simply do not exist elsewhere, not even in Kuwait, where deputies are permanently locked in a catch-22 with the Al Sabah. To be sure, elected chambers may yet alter political lives in Oman and Bahrain, but few anticipate similar institutions in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar anytime soon. Equally important are the active labour unions and political parties in Amman and Rabat, which make for interesting politics, even if the two monarchs retain veto power. Furthermore, and unlike the more conservative Gulf region, both Amman and Rabat display relatively open social structures, especially with respect to the roles of women, which are not necessarily compatible with norms on the Arabian Peninsula.
Therefore, and notwithstanding its geographical compatibility as well as the intrinsic value of its well-trained military, Jordan's putative membership poses specific hurdles.
Beyond socio-political dissimilarities, and despite the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Amman's security umbrella would also mean that all six Arab Gulf monarchies must reach out to Jordan in case of a breach. Likewise, and even if Morocco's physical separation from the Arabian Peninsula is somehow overlooked, Rabat's addition will load the GCC with the Sharifian monarchy's foreign policy quandaries.
For now, Riyadh's 7+1 GCC move focuses on how best to secure the long-term leaderships of both the Arab and Muslim worlds. It is a move to clarify the vision that neither Cairo nor Tehran, nor for that matter any other capital, can stand in the way of that aspiration.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.