GCC Membership Expansion: Possibilities and Obstacles






Even before its inception in 1981, regional pressures regularly pushed the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to politically reposition themselves in order to improve their geopolitical status and avoid potential threats. This chapter describes how similar geopolitical pressures informed both the initial repositioning process that led to the establishment of the GCC in 1981, and the more recent process that began in 2011 and is still ongoing. It suggests that the main motive behind any future expansion of the GCC will depend on the member states identifying other countries which share similar political and cultural values, and which have similar economies, and face similar security challenges.

Given the Arab League’s inability to provide a minimum level of political, economic, security and defence co-ordination, the chapter argues expansion is increasingly important to the GCC countries. The chapter addresses the likely determinants and patterns of future GCC expansion, arguing the opportunities and options for GCC expansion are significant, especially in relation to what is termed “functional expansion” and “strategic partnerships”.


Since its inception, regional pressures have made it necessary for the GCC states to regularly reposition themselves politically to enhance their geopolitical status and avoid potential threats. Indeed, it can be argued that geopolitical pressures contributed to the establishment of the GCC in 1981. Similar pressures that have emerged since 2011 have urged the GCC states to try a new repositioning strategy, which includes: adopting a more active foreign policy; consolidating existing co-ordination and co-operation programmes; and attempting to expand their membership.

The main aim of the current expansion process is to find additional member states that share the political and cultural values of the GCC, as well as similar economic conditions and security issues. Expansion is of the utmost importance to the GCC states, particularly in light of the Arab League’s inability to provide a minimum level of coordination in relation to politics, economics, security or defence issues. In this context, the GCC seems to be adopting a flexible expansion policy that does not necessarily require full membership from countries that are invited to join the council.

Repositioning then and now

The GCC was established in May 1981 in a region that was facing serious challenges. Egypt’s unilateral signing of the Camp David Peace Agreement with Israel in 1978 had led to its isolation from the Arab region in which it had long played a central role. In 1979, Iran’s revolutionary regime came to power, calling for a drastic changes in the political structures and international relations of the region. The complexity of the situation increased further following the outbreak of the Iraq–Iran War in September 1980, and the strategic threat to the GCC countries was further heightened by the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan from late 1979. The GCC states certainly did not share the Soviet Union’s political values, and were alarmed at the possibility that the Soviet invasion might succeed.

In January 1980, then-US president Jimmy Carter announced that his country would regard any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Gulf region as an assault on US interests, and would repel this by any means, including military force. However, following the US’s failed invasion of Vietnam, the leaders of the Arab world were not entirely convinced that the US would be able to follow through on this commitment.

Economically, the oil boom was making the Gulf states among the richest in the region, but it was becoming clear that the Arab League was not going to play a major role in maintaining regional security, or even in providing a minimum level of coordination in terms of developing diplomatic, political, or defence strategies.

In this context, the GCC countries felt the need to reposition themselves regionally, and to fill the vacuum created by the Arab League’s disinclination to play a stronger role. Admittedly, the joint military capabilities of each member state did not make them significant military actors in the region, but their main goal was to create a political bloc, whose members shared similar political values, economic outlooks, and security concerns, as well as strong cultural ties. Since 1981, the GCC has played a significant (if sometimes primarily symbolic) role in consolidating the position of each of the member states in the Gulf region.

Following the Arab Spring which started in 2011, a power vacuum recurred in the region. Iran still represented a major security concern for the GCC countries, with several GCC states accusing Tehran of inciting sectarian unrest in a number of Arab countries. Again, Egypt’s regional role declined as a result of the rapid political changes that occurred there, which were coupled with a sharp economic decline and unprecedented levels of political instability in some governorates. It also became clear that the political instability in Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria had developed beyond the control of the Arab League. Relations between the US and some of the GCC countries were characterised by tension and mistrust after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. This mistrust deepened further when the US’s stance on the ‘Arab Spring’ was perceived as being ambiguous.

Expansion as a tool for the regional repositioning of the GCC

In this context, the GCC countries again felt the need to reposition themselves. While the first repositioning process led to the birth of the GCC, the second, which began in 2011, has so far consisted of three main elements.

The first element is the GCC countries’ collective adoption of a more assertive and active policy on tackling regional instability: the GCC states were the main party to take the initiative in relation to Yemen, as well as playing a major diplomatic and military role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya, and they remain supporters of the Syrian opposition.(1) Moreover, the GCC states have played a key role in political developments in Egypt since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, albeit in a far less coordinated way.

The second element is the consolidation of coordination and integration within the GCC itself, especially in relation to issues relating to security and defence. Indeed, it can be argued that the GCC states have taken major steps in this regard since 2011. A security pact was signed during this period, which could potentially lead to the establishment of a common security body among the member states, and the GCC set up a common naval force, and intends to create a unified military command.(2) It can be said the call issued by the king of Saudi Arabia in December 2011, for the organisation to move “from cooperation to union”, epitomised the efforts being made to strengthen cooperation, coordination and integration within the GCC. The matter is still under consideration by the GCC.

The third element is the invitation extended to Jordan and Morocco in April 2014 to join the GCC, which indicates a strong desire among member states to expand their influence.

Factors determining GCC expansion

The invitation extended by the GCC to Jordan and Morocco cannot be understood without taking regional circumstances into consideration. There are striking contextual similarities between the GCC countries’ first attempt at repositioning, which led to the establishing of the GCC in 1981, and the second one in 2011, the results of which are not yet entirely clear.

The first similarity is the absence of an effective Egyptian state within the regional Arab framework – due to Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League in 1979, and currently to the political instability it has experienced since 2011. The second similarity is Iran’s actively revisionist policies, of which the GCC countries consider themselves a major target. Iran’s revolutionary momentum in the early 1980s was a major security concern for the GCC states, while Tehran’s more recent strategic gains in the region (mainly linked to US and British occupation of Iraq in 2003) represent a renewed threat to the GCC. The third similarity is the Arab League’s inability to operate effectively in providing a basic level of diplomatic and strategic coordination for its members. This is even clearer now than it was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The fourth similarity is the GCC’s lack of confidence in the US’s commitment to maintaining the existing balance of power in the Gulf region.

Despite the four similarities, there is at least one fundamental difference between the GCC countries’ recent attempts at repositioning compared with those made in the 1980s. When the GCC was established in 1981, the six member states were very wealthy, but also suffering from low levels of education, industrialisation and urbanisation among their respective populations. Thus, it can be argued that the establishment of the GCC was a defensive move, with member states aiming to create a mechanism that could protect them from the problems affecting the surrounding region, which was then politically troubled and economically weak. In 2011, the GCC’s repositioning, including its attempt to incorporate new members, seems to have been motivated by far more than defensiveness. On the contrary, its desire to expand indicates a shift towards openness, and an intention to impact directly on the wider Arab region. In other words, the establishment of the GCC in 1981 led to the creation of a sub-regional entity within the wider Arab region, while the current repositioning attempt is reflective of a bid to create a new centre of gravity, influence and control within the Gulf region, and more broadly among the other Arab states.

To demonstrate the importance of the four similarities outlined above as factors that continue to affect the position of the GCC and its relations within the region, it is useful to compare the two repositioning attempts to the events following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In the wake of the Iraqi invasion which came as an extreme shock to the GCC, the organisation attempted to reposition itself by creating an alliance with Egypt and Syria through what was known as  the ‘Damascus Declaration’ of 1991.(3) Needless to say, the Declaration did not evolve into a viable strategic partnership between the GCC, Egypt and Syria, nor has it led to the expansion of the GCC in any way.

Indeed, the four factors that contributed to the GCC’s repositioning in 1981 and 2011 did not come into play in 1991. At the time of the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, Egypt had regained its regional centrality and its pivotal role among the regional Arab nations – albeit short-lived. Iran had emerged from its eight-year war against Iraq, with its revolutionary zeal exhausted and its regional role under siege. The Arab League was demonstrating a considerable degree of efficiency in co-ordinating interactions among Arab countries. And the US had succeeded in confirming its commitment to maintaining the status quo in the region through its full military involvement in the Gulf War. Thus it can be argued that the GCC countries had no real need to reposition themselves regionally, and for that reason, the Damascus Declaration remained a temporary, tactical and short-lived alliance.

GCC expansion patterns

With reference to the history of the GCC, it is possible to discern three distinct patterns in the ways in which the GCC relates to other countries in the region.

The first is “functional expansion”. The GCC resorts to this with countries that do not share its political values, but which are of strategic, social or economic importance. In these cases, the GCC tends to include countries in events, organisations, bodies and committees to which it is affiliated, while engaging them in primarily functional relationships. This pattern can be said to apply to the GCC’s relations with Iraq in the 1980s, and Yemen in the contemporary era.

The second pattern is “strategic partnership”, which indicates the existence of a reciprocal commitment between the GCC states and a partner country, with both sides providing various kinds of support as needs arise. The political values of the states invited into this type of partnership are not necessarily similar to those held by the GCC. However, their commitment tends to remain in the realm of “moral support” rather than developing into deep and binding institutional obligations. This pattern applies to the GCC’s current relations with (for the time being at least) Jordan and Morocco. It is likely that the GCC’s relations with Yemen will shift from functional to strategic if Yemen stabilises politically. The flexibility of these types of arrangements means that other Arab countries, such as Iraq and Egypt (which were included in the Damascus Declaration), and even non-Arab countries, such as Pakistan, can be included.

The third pattern is “political expansion”, that is, full accession by a new member to the GCC. This would require a country not only to hold similar political values to those of existing members, but also to have similar cultural, economic and social structures. In the context of the GCC’s invitation to Jordan and Morocco to join the Council, priority seems to have been given to the political values shared by the various states.

The priority of similar political values: inviting Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC

It is important to note that sharing a common political space does not necessarily mean that the political, cultural, economic and security systems of all the GCC states have to be identical or generic. However, potential new member states do have to agree with the fundamental political values on which membership of the Council are based. These include maintaining the region’s status quo, and adopting a gradual approach to reform while giving priority to the modernisation of members’ economic, social and administrative sectors. In other words, the basic criteria for expansion is the sharing of political values, not political systems.

Many analyses of the reasons behind the invitation to Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC tend to focus on two main factors.(4) The first is that Jordan and Morocco were invited to be GCC members out of a desire to consolidate military cooperation between them and the current GCC member states. It is true that both Jordan and Morocco have cooperated with the GCC states in recent years – sharing military trainers and advisors or conducting joint military exercises. In fact, during the Gulf War, Morocco sent a few thousand troops to Saudi Arabia. However, an in-depth analysis reveals that the military capabilities of Jordan and Morocco are not sufficient to enable them to sustain a significant military deployment outside their borders. In addition, the combined military strength of the existing GCC members has developed remarkably over the past two decades, as indicated by specialist reports, such as the annual Military Balance reports issued by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.(5)

The second factor cited by analysts as being behind the invitation to Jordan and Morocco is that the current member states wanted to prevent troubles from occurring in ‘monarchies’ that fall outside of its ambit. This theory does not really hold water as the kingdoms of Morocco and Jordan have suffered from continuous political instability and economic hardship for most of their modern political histories yet the GCC had never before felt it necessary to invite them into the organisation. Furthermore, providing direct or indirect economic support to these two countries does not require their incorporation into the council.(6)

On the other hand, many analysts overlook the strategic and diplomatic burdens that may face GCC states if Jordan and Morocco do join the council. The inclusion of Jordan would create an overland link between the GCC states and Israel, which would force member states to adopt a new political and defence strategy. Also, Jordan’s involvement in the Palestinian question – through its oversight of Islamic holy sites in Al-Quds, and its hosting of millions of Palestinian refugees – would require the GCC’s engagement with this issue in ways that member states may not be prepared for. Similarly, Morocco’s joining the GCC would involve the GCC states directly in issues related to Morocco’s relations with Western Sahara, and thus with both overt and covert disputes with the United Nations, Algeria and Spain, which could drag the GCC into awkward diplomatic confrontations.(7)

By overlooking the factor of similar political values, analysts have tended to focus on non-determining factors to explain the reasons behind the invitation to Morocco and Jordan to join the GCC. It seems clear that the invitations were driven mainly by the similar political values shared by all the states, and indicate that the GCC feels that these are strong enough to overcome any difficulties that Jordan and Morocco’s respective acceptances of the invitations may create for the GCC.


The GCC countries are gradually making progress towards becoming a centre of gravity, influence and control in the Arab region. The fact that the Arab League remains unable to play an effective role, seems likely to further expand the GCC’s options and opportunities, particularly when it comes to functional expansion and strategic partnerships.

*  Dr. Saud Al Tamamy is an assistant professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

1. For more details, see:
Al Tamamy, S. Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring, Opportunities and Challenges of Security, In: Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf, the Red Sea, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2012, Pages: 143-156. 

2. A source to “Al-Sharq Al-Awsat”: A Saudi to lead the Unified GCC Military Command, Al Sharq Al Awsat, issue: 12806.

Also: Results of the GCC Summit: Customs Union, Naval Force, Support to al-Sisi and Hadi, and condemnation of Daesh and Al-Nusrah, CNN.

3. The full text of the declaration can be found here: http://www.moqatel.com/openshare/Behoth/IraqKwit/30/doc02.doc_cvt.htm

4. For example: The expansion of the GCC Membership the beginning of a new Arab Political Map, CNN

5. The Military Balance 2014, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Rutledge, London.

6. In fact, the invitation of Jordan to the GCC dates back to 2001. See: Al-Majali calls on Jordan to join the GCC, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat issue 8266. 

7. Although the Final Communiqué following the fourth Joint Ministerial Meeting between GCC Foreign Ministers and their counterparts from Morocco and Jordan included the assertion and support of the “Serious and Credible Autonomy Initiative launched by the Kingdom of Morocco as a basis for negotiations in order to reach a final solution to the regional conflict on the Moroccan Sahara”, the Final Statement of the Doha Summit was devoid of any reference in this regard.

See: Final Communiqué of the Foreign Ministers of the GCC, Jordan and Morocco affirmed cooperation in combating terrorism, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, issue 13147: http://classic.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=795956&issueno=13147#.VIeAYdFxldg.