Dubai: The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council to consider including the two remaining Arab monarchies into the grouping has left more questions than answers as regional alliances see major strategic shifts.
The strategic value of the shift has however come under scrutiny with Gulf observers questioning the benefits of the possible expansion for current member states.
Secretary General of the GCC Abdul Latif Al Zayani announced during a GCC consultative summit in Riyadh on Tuesday that foreign minister of Jordan and Morocco will hold talks with their GCC counterparts to “complete required procedures” for accession.
Major decisions by the grouping are usually announced in annual summits after series of closed door meetings that often take decades to conclude.
Jordan had previously shown interest in joining the bloc, but its requests had been politely brushed off. Yemen’s request for membership had been stalled but the country, currently embroiled in political unrest, hopes to join the grouping by 2016.
Member states have also supported a loose economic alliance with Iraq but have ruled out full accession.
While Gulf governments have publicly welcomed the move, a report in the Kuwaiti daily Al Qabas stated that consensus between the six member states had not been reached, with Kuwait, Oman and Qatar calling for the bloc to “study” the proposals further. The three states favour a part-membership in the areas of culture and sport, matching the status of Yemen and Iraq.
“We are full of questions. Did the decision involve serious thought and deliberation? I don’t think so. The GCC rarely comes up with such bombastic decisions that can have profound ramifications for the [bloc]” said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, political science professor at UAE University.
Plans of expanding the GCC have added to confusion about the nature of the grouping, which was launched as a counterweight to the then powerful Iraq, and Iran, but has since been more involved in economic cooperation.
“Going all the way to Morocco,” said Abdullah, further muddies the true nature of the grouping.
“Thirty years [since its establishment] we still don’t know what the GCC is. Is it an economic integration venture, a security alliance or a political coordination group? The identity of the GCC is not yet fully realised,” he added.
The decision to consider expansion is being seen as a knee-jerk reaction to heightened perception of an Iranian plot to destabilise the region following unrest in Bahrain, say observers.
“The question is, is everyone on board with this or is it a Saudi-Bahraini plan?” said Dr Abdullah Al Shayeji, professor of political science at Kuwait University.
The GCC is realising a newfound sense of unity following the pro-democracy protests in the region and the perceived threat from Iran, said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at UK based Chattham House.
“The story of the GCC in the past few years has focussed on efforts of economic integration which have been hampered by political tensions, but now you’re seeing more unity in the GCC from before. It’s not complete unity and you will see cracks emerging again, but they have been reminded about their common interests,” she said.
The GCC had however made a similar announcement of an alliance with non-Gulf Arab states following a regional crisis in the past.
Following the liberation of Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion, the GCC states issued a Damascus Declaration in March 1991 whereby Egypt and Syria would provide the ground forces in the event of a foreign invasion in return for Gulf assistance.
The regimes in Egypt and Iraq have changed to governments significantly friendlier to the GCC’s current adversary, Iran, and the Syrian regime, already allied with Iran, has become a pariah internationally for its response to pro democracy protests.
“The inclusion of Morocco and Jordan in the GCC is replacing Syria and Egypt and sending a message to Arab republics that they are not welcome in the [grouping],” said Shayeji.
Kinninmont said the region could be seeing a “flashback to the 1950s”, when Saudi Arabia and Egypt were major regional rivals.
Saudi Arabia, she said, may be attempting to enter the phase better prepared, by building a new alliance.
“It also sends a message to the people of Jordan and Morocco that their rulers have strong backing from the Gulf,” she said.
Shayeji likened the GCC’s expansion to the creation of a “mini NATO” or “mini Arab League”.
Iran’s military superiority in terms of the number of ground forces it has remains a major concern for the GCC and the bloc relies primarily on potential US military intervention in the event of an external attack on the member states.
While recognising the GCC’s concerns of the perceived Iranian threat, Shayeji said the Islamic Republic “won’t be fazed by this ganging up”. “I don’t think it’s a sound strategic decision”.
Abdullah said it was too early to take the announcement seriously, as “integration takes time”.