Buffeted by the wind of democratic change but determined not be blown over by it, the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), consisting of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has surprised the rest of the Arab world by declaring that it would accept a request by Jordan to join the club and would encourage Morocco to do the same.
The reaction, especially in Morocco, which had never asked to join, was one of bemused incomprehension. The government in Rabat was respectful but cool, noting Morocco’s commitment to the Maghreb Arab Union. Jokes were traded on Twitter, with a #funnygcc hashtag, wondering how the different cultures of the Arab world’s easternmost and westernmost people would get on. Moroccan women worried half in jest whether, as in Saudi Arabia, they would no longer be allowed to drive. The republic of Yemen, by contrast, has been asking in vain for membership since 1999.
Abdullatif al-Zayani, the GCC’s secretary-general, a Bahraini who has been trying to mediate an end to the turmoil in Yemen, disclosed few details of the club’s planned enlargement. But the aims were evident. For one thing, the GCC sees itself as a bulwark against Iran, which all the club’s members, led by its most powerful, Saudi Arabia, view as a rising threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab leader to speak darkly, in 2004, of a “Shia crescent”; Morocco’s King Muhammad VI cut off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 2009, accusing the Islamic Republic of trying to spread its sect of Islam in his stoutly Sunni kingdom. Aside from Oman, whose sultan follows Islam’s Ibadi school, all GCC members are Sunni-ruled. Jordan and Morocco have also given security support to GCC countries. A Jordanian contingent joined the recent Saudi-led intervention to suppress Shia protesters in Bahrain, and Moroccans have long provided brains and brawn to the UAE’s emirs.
There is an economic angle, too. Morocco and Jordan are relatively poor—and lack oil. The rich Gulf states have backed both with billions in aid. For Moroccans and Jordanians, many of whom work in the Gulf, the open borders and labour markets enjoyed by the GCC’s current sextet, which plans a customs union by 2015, is another lure, though today’s GCC members will not give the newcomers all the same privileges from the start.
Monarchical solidarity is, of course, the ultimate bond, at a time when the republican dynasties of Egypt, Libya, Syria and Tunisia have come unstuck or look shaky. A common joke these days is that the GCC should be renamed the “Gulf Counter-Revolutionary Club”.