On May 10, at their 13th consultative summit, Gulf Cooperation Council leaders accepted Jordan’s application for membership, noting that it had originally been tendered 15 years ago. The GCC leaders also issued an invitation to Morocco to join their “super-rich Arab club” even though Morocco had not requested to join.
This decision by the Gulf countries was viewed in Arab political circles as a striking step. Some described the decision as an attempt to create a “Sunni monarchies club;” others, as an attempt to re-create the 1950s Baghdad Pact. The GCC initiative was the outcome of Saudi-led efforts, supported by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. However, three other GCC countries, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait, had reservations with the move, which may reflect their apprehension.
The controversial decision led to a debate inside GCC political, economic and cultural circles and provoked internal opposition. A move by GCC leaders to admit Jordan will prove difficult. The decision could not be taken outside the context of Saudi Arabia’s strategy for dealing with three major new challenges confronting the kingdom and its allies. First, the threats emanating from Iran’s consistent drive to extend its power and influence in the region, including among the GCC countries themselves, as well as Tehran’s nuclear program with multifold goals, including a military dimension.
A second major challenge is the collapse of moderate Arab regimes, in particular Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, in the course of the “Arab Spring,” possibly leading to the creation of democratic republics that reinforce anti-Saudi political forces (liberals, leftists and Islamists) inside these countries and regionally. This would present a new challenge to the kingdom. Riyadh has reacted with a counter-revolution against Arab reform and revolution that seeks to contain the new forces of change in the region.
Third is the growing threat posed by Al-Qaeda and other terrorists in “soft” regions like Yemen and the fear that this might penetrate Saudi Arabia. It also seems clear to Riyadh and some of its Gulf allies that the United States has shelved the Iran nuclear file and has not acted to prevent expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Further, the U.S. has appeared to be prepared to abandon allies like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Zine al-Abedin Ben Ali of Tunisia if necessary.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have begun to adopt a new strategy, based on six pillars: First, putting their own houses in order by pumping billions of dollars into buying the silence of their citizens and preventing their protests.
Second, putting the Gulf house as a whole in order, closing gaps that may have allowed security threats to penetrate (the Bahrain uprising, threats in Oman), cooling down border disputes and tempering Riyadh’s rivalry with the UAE regarding a Gulf currency and the Central Bank.
Third, expanding the GCC umbrella to welcome Jordan’s application for membership and inviting in Morocco in order to create an economic, political and security force representing 80 million Arabs to counter Iran with its population of 70 million.
Fourth, looking to the east to build new alliances with China, India and Pakistan after concluding that the existing pro-Western alliance might not meet the GCC’s security needs.
Fifth, intensifying efforts to contain Arab revolutions by using money and oil and by re-directing Salafist Islamic movements in the region against forces of change and revolution.
And sixth, moving from static defense to more aggressive tactics in dealing with Iran. This means intense political and diplomatic campaigns at every level. It also means concentrating on the Iranian nuclear threat, the dangers of expanding Shiite influence and in particular Iran’s attempts to penetrate the Gulf and Arab security systems, as well as focusing on national, ethnic and religious targets in Iran, beginning with Arabistan-Khuzestan-Ahwaz and activating Salafist movements in these regions.
During the last year alone, the Gulf security and defense system recorded two major failures. The first was military, in the confrontation between the Saudi army and the Yemeni Houthis. This seemingly proved that hundreds of billions of dollars had not succeeded in transforming the Saudi armed forces into an effective fighting force capable of defending the kingdom’s borders against medium-size threats. The second, all too obvious security failure was in Bahrain, where the regime was unable to contain the Shiite opposition and was obliged to ask for the help of Peninsula Shield forces in addition to recruiting dozens of retired soldiers and officers from Arab and Islamic countries like Jordan and Pakistan.
As for Jordan, there is a growing belief among political circles that its acceptance as a member of the GCC came in the context of a Saudi-led strategy of self-reliance that seeks to expand the GCC’s sphere of allies and not depend on Washington. The U.S. views the latest regional developments differently from the Saudis on issues like Bahrain and the Houthis. Washington may protect the GCC states from Iran, but it will not protect them from internal threats. It views the Arab Spring as an opportunity while Saudi Arabia views it as a threat.
Many Jordanians understandably welcomed the GCC membership offer as a way to help solve problems of unemployment, poverty, low growth and rising energy costs that weigh heavily on the economy. But reformist and liberal currents fear that the offer may in fact be an opening for a military alliance aimed at countering Iran and the Arab revolutions simultaneously. This prospect and the role it envisages for Jordan are viewed by Jordanians with skepticism.
The reformist current also fears certain practical consequences as a result of Jordan joining the GCC: human rights regarding women, minorities and freedom of opinion and expression could be infringed and the future of reform and democratic transformation in the country could be affected. Placing Jordan under a “Saudi umbrella” could have a social, cultural and religious impact as a consequence of the extremist Saudi Wahhabi school of thought.
At the pragmatic level, the process of joining the GCC may take too long, and the positive returns delayed. Meanwhile, Jordan is being asked to provide security and military services without delay. Thus, GCC membership may become a burden on Jordan’s security and stability rather than a solution to its financial and economic crisis.
By Oraib al-Rantawi