In the face of the extraordinary revolutions of 2011, the conservative monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have gone into self-preservation mode, bolstering their defensive capabilities, recalibrating their security alliances, and expanding their partnerships. The counter-revolutionary chieftain of the club, Saudi Arabia, has taken the lead in organizing a patterned response to what it perceives as a populist and doctrinal attack on the existing order. 

It is in this context that the GCC opened its institutional doors to Jordan and Morocco, which happen to share the same religious identification and threat perception and had long sought the financial benefits that come with GCC membership. Reliable allies of the GCC, the Jordanian and Moroccan monarchies have stationed thousands of security officers in the Gulf for decades –  partnerships that the GCC states see as critical in this time of upheavals. For their part, Jordan and Morocco need desperately to address the fiscal deficits generated by the recent expansion of state subsidies and significant increases in civil servant wages and pensions.

Morocco as a Gulf State?

In Morocco, the regime cautiously welcomed the invitation to join the club of the superrich in the Middle East, in contrast to the more enthusiastic welcome Jordan gave to the initiative. Morocco has always enjoyed privileged partnerships with most of the Gulf countries, but given its physical distance from the Gulf, cultural differences, and close ties with Europe, membership in the GCC was never seriously contemplated, at least not during the reign of King Mohammed VI. The young monarch does not have the close personal connections that his father had with Gulf leaders, nor has he maintained King Hassan’s active involvement in Arab causes.

Mohammed VI certainly wants his strategic relations with the GCC to deepen, however, in order to bolster Morocco’s regional political power and the geopolitical framing of its conflict with neighboring oil-rich Algeria. The latter has used its oil bonanza to step up its defense spending as well as its diplomatic offensive in order to shore up support for the Polisario separatists and their secessionist claims on the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

In a tense climate of rivalry and mistrust, Morocco has been struggling to keep up with the Algerian military spending spree and maintain the precarious balance of power in the Maghreb.  Deepening political and economic ties with the GCC will provide a major diplomatic, political, and economic boost. The Saudis are known to have helped finance several Moroccan military purchases, and further such assistance is needed. Morocco is also in need of an upgrade of Gulf countries’ financial investments in the Kingdom, as well as easier work permits for its legions of unemployed.

Despite the many advantages that a closer association with the GCC would bring to Morocco, the public reaction was one of bewilderment and derision. The timing of the initiative is suspect in the eyes of many Moroccans, who fear that Gulf monarchies are pressing the Moroccan monarch to scale back the reforms to which he committed in a March 9 televised address. Unlike previous promises, the king set out a clear timetable for enshrining the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and parameters for decentralization in the constitution. He also allowed protests to proceed largely unhindered, freed political prisoners, and empowered the National Human Rights Council and the Competition Council with additional competencies.

These reforms were carefully considered to meet the most pressing demands of the protesters: to curb the King’s extensive legislative and executive powers and to tackle the major problems of corruption, lack of accountability, and impunity for senior officials. The King’s announced reforms will not transform the nature of monarchical powers, but they will pave the way for an evolution towards a better equilibrium between the King and the other branches of government. It is such evolution that the Saudis are said to fear, for if a peaceful democratic transition happens in the kingdom of Morocco, the event would be as seminal as the extraordinary revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.  The Moroccan monarchy would provide a powerful model that the monarchies of the Gulf might potentially be forced to follow. 

Moroccans are also concerned that they might become entangled in another doctrinal war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’i Iran. The last thing that Morocco needs now is a replay of the 1980s, when Gulf money nurtured the development of the Salafi movement as a counterweight to revolutionary Shi’ism and political Islam. The Saudis have long tried to shape ideological debates within Islamist movements in ways that fit their own Salafi persuasions. It is this brand of Islamism that has been party to escalating tensions between Christians and Muslims in Egypt, as well as creating tension with other Islamist movements, whom Salafis press to renounce their steady evolution towards pragmatism, tolerance, and democracy. 

Morocco’s membership in the GCC is still a proposal at this point and must be followed by several steps to become a reality. The gap between the Moroccan economy and those of its counterparts in the Gulf is wide. While the specific criteria for accession to the GCC in its charter are unclear, the economic mismatch between Morocco and Gulf States would require significant efforts and political will to achieve full economic integration and harmonization of rules and regulations in legislation, finance, customs, trade, and administration. 

An enlarged GCC can potentially play an important and constructive role in helping to resolve Arab crises and has the means to help stabilize governments in transition. The challenge, however, is how to convince this kings’ club that it should support stable transitions and prevent it from becoming a reactionary bloc intent on defending the status quo and sabotaging the Arab desire for democracy.

Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of international relations at McDaniel College, Westminster, Maryland, and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of Politics in Morocco: Executive Monarchy and Enlightened Authoritarianism (Routledge 2010).