Morocco, the GCC’s Maghreb protector?

When the proposal to invite Morocco and Jordan into the Gulf Cooperation Council first made headlines last May, it was interpreted as an offer of solidarity between monarchs at a time when Bahrain’s Sunni royal family was facing angry protests.

In fact, the effort to expand the regional association is more than a reactionary response to sweeping protests and changes in the Middle East. It suggests an attempt to find a long-term solution to regional uncertainty and a shifting balance of power.

Moroccan Foreign Minister Taib Fassi-Fihri and his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Jouda, traveled to Jeddah last month to discuss their countries’ potential membership and the details of accession. What initially seemed to be a bizarre idea with little chance of materializing now appears feasible. Although the notion is hard to reconcile with geographic and socio-economic realities, Morocco and Jordan seem to be on track to becoming GCC members.

On the surface, the plan to add Morocco and Jordan to the GCC is an effort to address concerns about a second wave of regional protests that targets monarchies. It complements the Arab monarchies’ prevailing response to the protests: proposing reforms that promise meaningless elections or superficial change, while also increasing social spending to buy stability.

These reforms have been couched in progressive language and combined with an effective public relations campaign intended to win over both the people in these countries as well as the international community. Morocco has demonstrated this perfectly with its recent constitutional revisions. Saudi Arabia’s massive social spending and recent announcement of women suffrage, like Bahrain’s recent elections, are also illustrations of this strategy.

But Morocco has not been able to respond economically to the protests in the same fashion that the richer monarchies have. Accession to the GCC will undoubtedly bring economic and national security benefits to Morocco, as well as the prestige of joining one of the more elite regional organizations. The kingdom is struggling with serious economic difficulties, including a large budget deficit, expensive energy imports, high unemployment (particularly among educated youth), and poverty rates that also remain high despite Morocco’s attempt in recent years to reduce them.

The economic boost that would come with GCC membership could provide remedies to many of these issues, though only the specific terms of Morocco’s accession will reveal the extent of the benefits that will accrue. In terms of foreign policy, accession could also be a coup for Morocco, as it would gain powerful allies in the long-running dispute over Western Sahara and in the antagonistic relationship with Algeria (particularly given Algeria’s relationship with Iran.)

Saudi Arabia and the GCC have a deep interest in the stability of other Arab monarchies, and have portrayed the Arab Spring as a phenomenon targeting republics. But beyond the symbolism of more stable Arab monarchies, Morocco (and Jordan) could provide certain advantages to the GCC in general and Saudi Arabia in particular.

Clearly Saudi Arabia is not interested in bringing Morocco’s experience with a multiparty political system, labor unions, women’s rights, and cultural openness to the West into the GCC. But by transforming the GCC from a small, regional oil-rich organization into a diverse alliance that stretches from the Strait of Hormuz to the Strait of Gibraltar, Saudi Arabia may hope to augment its strategic position. Current Saudi strategy is driven by a need to respond to the recent and ongoing radical shift in regional dynamics and to counter what Riyadh perceives as growing Iranian influence. With Morocco and Jordan, the GCC gains strategic depth and Saudi Arabia gains allies who would take a hard-line against Iran (unlike Qatar and Oman, which both maintain good working relations with Tehran.)

Along with some of the strategic advantages that Morocco and Jordan bring to the GCC, there are some tangible gains as well. Both Morocco and Jordan are appealing investment opportunities. Morocco also has a large population and a viable military force. Recently, speculation surfaced in the Moroccan press that the kingdom would provide military units, as would Jordan, to the GCC. Although the speculation has not been addressed by Morocco’s Foreign Ministry, it makes a lot of sense. The GCC has advanced military equipment but is short of manpower. Given the military role that Saudi Arabia has played in Bahrain and Yemen – to say nothing of fears of an aggressive Iran, a reconstituted Iraq, and the possibility of more Arab revolutions – this could be a priority in order to withstand new regional changes.

Despite the mutual benefits of accession to the GCC, Moroccan reformers and the Feb. 20 protest movement risk being further marginalized. The GCC will provide Morocco with a more robust response to protests resulting from disparity, and will encourage the monarchy to ignore protesters’ call for social justice, transparency, and political accountability. Historically, Morocco has looked to France and the West for political and economic support, but this would often come with various demands. The GCC will make no demands for political reform, democracy, or human rights. Indeed, the council could quietly support resistance to substantial reform.

Intissar Fakir is a special assistant to the deputy president of the National Endowment for Democracy. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the NED. This commentary was written for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 14, 2011, on page 7.




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