The US-based publication Defense News confidently reported on April 14 that the “GCC Seeks to Form Military Bloc with Jordan, Morocco.” The story relied on an unnamed Jordanian who advised that the invitation was tendered in late March. Almost two years ago, reports emerged of an invitation to Jordan and Morocco to become full members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), purportedly because these monarchies would have much in common with the GCC as they confronted the dual challenges of the citizens asking for more say in their governments (Arab Spring) and the continuing threat of Iran to wield more influence in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Nothing much came of the invitation to become members and nothing much will come from the reports of a new “Gulf Plus” army. The logic, cost, and logistics of forming a coherent Arab armed forces drawing from forces around the region has been tested in the past and found wanting. The story may be completely false, but was likely floated for its symbolic value—to demonstrate Arab unity against Iran. Unfortunately, especially coming after the strange notion of including Morocco and Jordan in the GCC, it smacks of rather empty symbolism that is likely to be seized on by Iran’s eager and able propagandists to demonstrate the weakness, rather than the strength, of Arab forces.
Military analysts have made a cottage industry of proposals on how to strengthen Gulf security. A recent detailed example by Anthony Cordesman catalogued the vast array of military capabilities that the GCC states can count on from the United States and described the huge cache of advanced defense equipment purchased by some Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. His recommendations of how to improve Gulf security have little or nothing to do with more equipment or additional forces. They all center on coordinated GCC use of existing equipment, intelligence sharing, and better training and sustainment of troops.
The Obama administration and its predecessors have urged greater integration of Gulf defenses, particularly to counter the missile threat from Iran. In December of last year in a speech in Manama, Defense Secretary Hagel upped the ante by offering to work with the GCC as an organization to integrate missile defense, proposing to sell defense articles to the GCC in addition to bilateral sales, and offering regular meetings with assembled GCC defense ministers. Consumed with its own internal issues—the latest being the dispute pitting Saudi Arabia and the UAE against Qatar—the GCC does not appear to have responded to any of the new ideas. But more fundamental issues are also at play. The six states of the Gulf are as different as they are the same. With the exception of Saudi Arabia and perforce Bahrain, no GCC member is interested in pursuing projects for greater political and military unity. At the root of this disinclination towards unity is fear of Saudi domination and nervousness that unity could foster a Saudi brand of social conservatism that no other Gulf state would welcome.
The lack of strong interest in GCC unity among its members begs the question of why, beyond simple military logic, the United States would push for it. In his December remarks, Secretary Hagel declared that the “the United States has been a force for advancing Gulf cooperation since the GCC was established more than thirty years ago. This will not only continue, but accelerate in the years ahead.” Rather than accelerate, perhaps the United States should see how the GCC reacts to the ideas Hagel proposed, and, then take a pause to examine whether the illusory goal of unity is genuinely in the US interest. It is useful to recall that the US push for European integration through NATO and the European Community/Union was not only based on a military calculation about how to counter the Soviet Union. It was based on the notion that a community of democracies would be a force for good in the world, and membership in NATO and the EU required adherence to full-fledged democratic systems. While the United States is in no position to impose democracy on the Gulf states, it should nonetheless take a sober look at whether largely rhetorical US support for GCC unity is based on a serious multifaceted analysis of US interests in the Gulf, and not driven simply by the narrow logic of military deterrence.
Richard LeBaron is a resident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and the Brent Scowcroft Center for Security with a special focus on the Gulf region.