The announcement last week in Riyadh that the Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed bids by Jordan and Morocco to join the organisation was met first with grunts of derision and then guffaws of mockery across the Arab world. But analysts are now realising that this is serious initiative by the six-nation member states of the GCC to counter the growing influence of Iran in the region and to find alternative ways of defending their common interests, following successful popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, without having to rely on the United States.
"The timing of this announcement has all to do with the upheavals around the Arab world, and this expansion request, whether initiated by the GCC or by the countries concerned, would not have been countenanced under so- called 'normal' circumstances," said Mohamed Ramadi, a professor of economics at King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
Spurring this announcement has been the growing feeling of insecurity on the part of GCC states, which saw their once-staunch ally Hosni Mubarak unceremoniously driven from office by popular street protests in Egypt, with the US seen as having stood by without doing anything, as well as violent street protests by Shia in Bahrain, which were put down by a Saudi-led GCC force of soldiers and policemen, and ongoing street protests in Syria.
"Saudi Arabia will not allow the political unrest in the region to destabilise the Arab monarchies. In Yemen, the Saudis are insisting on an orderly transition of power and a dignified exit for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a courtesy that was not extended to Hosni Mubarak, despite the former Egyptian president's many years as a strong US ally)," wrote Nawaf Obaid, a security adviser to the Saudi government, this week in the Washington Post.
The constellation of forces in the Arab world is poised to change radically
The benefits of allowing Jordan and Morocco into what has been until now a club of oil-rich Gulf states, would be manifold: the Gulf states would benefit by having access to the political and military capabilities of these two countries, while Jordan and Morocco would benefit from the massive amounts of economic aid that the Gulf countries could pump into their economies.
"Jordan and Morocco are in need of capital investment and both regularly run fiscal deficits, whereas the GCC as a bloc is a significant capital exporter," explained Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow on the Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House in London.
Indeed, Samer Al-Tawil, a former minister of tourism in Jordan, told Al-Arabiya that his country's military troops could be deployed in the Gulf if Jordan were allowed to join the GCC.
"Both countries have economic potential, but what makes them more attractive is the fact that they have well-trained Sunni armies which the GCC can use to counter what it sees as the Iranian threat, emanating from local Shia," said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-Israeli analyst. "The priority for the GCC countries is bolstering security forces with Sunni soldiers, from countries which are headed by monarchs, much like them. Neither Iraq nor Yemen are monarchical. They are also populated by Shia, which makes them much less attractive for the GCC."
If this proposed expansion goes ahead, many observers have pointed out that the regional grouping will become a club of Sunni monarchies (with the exception of Oman which practices the Ibadi form of Islam) versus the Arab republics. But many doubts remain on whether or not the GCC will have the political will to pull off this plan.
Established 30 years ago to group the six Arab monarchies that rim the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, namely Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, the GCC was as much a reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the revolution in Iran, that both took place in 1979, as it was to the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War that started in 1980.
Long on rhetoric but extremely slow in actually achieving much, the GCC set itself ambitious goals of having visa-free travel for its citizens between member states, a common currency and harmonised trade tariffs. Military cooperation was also high on the agenda, with a much-touted Peninsula Shield force composed of soldiers from all six countries, that was supposed to be a quick-reaction force to defend against external and internal threats.
Unfortunately, the GCC never achieved many of its lofty goals. GCC citizens do enjoy visa-free travel in the region, and can invest and work in each other's countries without any red tape. Customs tariffs have also been harmonised, but until the intervention in Bahrain in March, the Peninsula Shield force was by all accounts dead, and a monetary union that was supposed to happen last year has not come to pass. Rivalry between member states is blamed for many of these failures. The UAE and Oman refused to join the common currency, and Saudi Arabia, by far the most influential member of the GCC, has ongoing border disputes with Qatar and the UAE.
The only other country in the Arabian Peninsula that is not a member of the GCC is Yemen, which because of its poverty and political instability has been given only observer status in the GCC. It has formally applied to join the group, and at least on paper, it is poised to become a full member in 2016, but many observers doubt this will ever happen.
"The economic disparities between Yemen and the wealthy GCC states would be too great for financial and monetary union to take place, unless there was a huge amount of fiscal redistribution," said Kinninmont. "Yemen's membership bid has never been thought very likely to succeed and the announcement about Jordan and Morocco makes it seem even less likely. The GCC should see it in their interest to help develop Yemen's economy, as the country's poverty and resource depletion will only contribute to regional instability."
Even so, few believe that Jordan and Morocco will ever be allowed to join the GCC as full members, with Kuwait, Qatar and Oman already voicing objections to this proposed expansion. Apparently, what is envisioned is something more than observer status but less than full-fledged membership.
"There will be free-trade agreements, bilateral investments, and more government to government projects if Jordan and Morocco join the GCC in some way, but definite restrictions on travel and residency will remain in place. Full mobility will remain a no-no for a long time," said Professor Ramady.
Yet not giving Jordan and Morocco full membership and access to the current GCC is seen by some as fatally wounding the expansion plan from the outset.
"To me, the biggest reason why the GCC is inviting Jordan and Morocco is because of their armies. If the GCC leaders want the soldiers of these countries to die for them, they should give them full economic and travel rights. Anything less will damage the sustainability and credibility of such a deal with the local Jordanian and Moroccan populations," said Javedanfar.
This would certainly disappoint the many Saudi commentators on Twitter this past week who were celebrating the proposed expansion plan because they said it would make it easier for Saudi men to marry Moroccan women. Saudi men currently need permission from their government to marry non-GCC women, a process that can take many months.
Yet the real danger remains that this new push to enlarge the GCC will be perceived as an attempt by reactionary and undemocratic monarchies to keep the democratic changes and freedoms, that have been sweeping the rest of the Arab world from their own people.
"Is the new GCC a desperate attempt from rich Gulf states to protect the remaining monarchies/ dictatorships in the Arab world?" tweeted Ebtihal Mubarak, a Saudi activist and journalist based in New York.
Kinninmont does not view the expansion of the GCC as a reaction to the Arab Spring revolutions, but she says that observers may think so because of how the group is behaving in Yemen and Egypt.
"In Yemen the GCC's diplomatic initiative appears aimed at preserving most of the current political system, with power being transferred between existing elites, whereas numerous grassroots groups in Yemen would like to see the political structures and institutions changed to allow greater democratic participation," she said.
"In Egypt there is widespread resentment over GCC support for Hosni Mubarak and many activists are concerned about possible Saudi financing of Salafi groups, some of which take a very intolerant attitude to Christians," added Kinninmont. "The GCC will need to be careful about being perceived as opposing the emerging democracy and reform movements elsewhere in the region, as it risks creating new enemies."
Confirming the reactionary nature of the new GCC strategy, it was reported this week that the US mercenary firm Blackwater has been tapped to set up a rapid response desert force by the GCC in Emirates' Zayed Military City. This could only happen with Washington's approval, as part of its post-occupation regional strategy.
As part of their own strategy to defend themselves from democratic forces in their countries, the Gulf monarchs are thus reinforcing their position as the key supporters of US imperial policy in the region. They are betting that the Obama administration, caught-off guard by the call for democratic change that is sweeping the Arab world, will look the other way.