17/06/2011

Arab regional integration or counter-revolution?

 

Since its creation in 1981, the Gulf Cooperation Council has proven an extremely closed club of 6 oil-rich Gulf States, dedicated to economic and political integration in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen, the region’s weak link both economically and politically despite its energy potential and its geo-strategic location in the South of the Peninsula on the Gulf of Aden, has been knocking on the Council’s door for over a decade but has seen its application systematically turned down. A harsh reality not set to change? It looks that way; Membership to any exclusive club has always been a hard-earned battle.

But the announcement on May 11th that the GCC Member countries are planning to expand to Jordan and Morocco contradicts this assumption. Indeed, unlike Yemen, neither Jordan nor Morocco is a geographic entity of the Peninsula (over 5,000km separate Morocco and Saudi Arabia) , presents the same energy credentials (both are net importers of gas and oil) or shares any of the geo-strategic priorities on the international scene, while both already enjoy substantial economic support by the rich Gulf states. But, in the midst of an Arab spring in which friendly dictators across the Arab World are withering under the pressure of the streets, both shortlisted countries present two vital criteria for accession to this exclusive Council: remaining relatively unaffected by the wave of pro-democracy revolutions and bearing a King at its head.

Driving Arab regional integration forward may explain this unexpected expansion effort by the GCC. Indeed, 2011 has been a year of great activity for the Council: it has joined international efforts to address unrests in North Africa, and against Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in particular; it sought to broker a deal in Yemen; and sent security forces to Bahrain, in controversial manner. The GCC’s increasing activity and influence in international affairs is a stark contrast to the Arab League, the main Arab regional organization. With the League plagued by internal divergences and discredited by its lack of implication in addressing major developments in its region, the GCC is seeking to build upon its current successes and provide the engine for greater regional integration across the Arab world. Bringing on board two friendly and relatively moderate Arab countries spared by the Arab Spring thus marks the first step towards a renewed Arab regional integration.

However, the choice of two monarchies with important military capacities, capable of handling internal instability and with close ties to Gulf Royal families, is no coincidence. With popular anger felt from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, any stable Arab state in the region must be preserved and pampered. The ousting of Hosni Mubarak saw the loss of the most powerful regime in the region and close ally to GCC countries. In Syria, growing internal instability is threatening the Al Assad regime, also a close friend and ally of the Gulf regimes. These developments have created a power vacuum in the region, which GCC Members fear could open the way to greater instability at home and consolidate the rising influence of pro-democracy advocacy throughout the Arab World. The expansion of the Council to include Jordan and Morocco thus seeks to build a club of friendly monarchies aimed at consolidating the positions of regimes spared by the revolutions and preventing further spread of popular uprisings in the region.

The decision to integrate Jordan and Morocco, two relatively moderate and stable monarchies, into the traditionally closed circle of GCC countries is clearly political rather than economic. The dynamism of the GCC in the face of Arab revolutions and its ambitions to expand across the Arab World may mark the start of a new wave of Arab regional integration, which the Arab League had so far failed to achieve. But this announcement also represents an effort by GCC countries to build a stronger front against the Arab Spring, a preventive measure to avoid further disruption of a tight network of deeply-rooted regimes reluctant to give in to democracy: the GCC appears to have launched its counter-revolution.

 

Andrew Bower