Jordan's GCC membership push offers mutual gains

AP News
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Posted: May 12, 2011 6:43 AM
Jordan's GCC membership push offers mutual gains

The Gulf Cooperation Council's surprisingly warm welcome of energy-poor Jordan's application the ranks of the predominantly oil rich bloc of nations is the latest reflection of how the widespread protests in the Arab nations are reshaping the political landscape in the volatile Mideast, analysts said.

Two days after Gulf Arab leaders said they "welcome" Jordan's request to join the six-nation group that includes OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia, Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Thursday contacts were under way with his counterparts in the GCC to meet Jordan's membership requirements. Detailed discussions could come later this month, he said, without disclosing what the membership requirements are.

Jordan had first applied to the GCC for membership in the mid-1980s, when the resource-barren kingdom found itself unable to finance a multibillion foreign debt caused by military purchases to modernize its army. But the request by the late King Hussein, the father of Jordan's ruler _ King Abdullah II _ was rejected, with no reason given.

The GCC's about-face now, however, appears to underscore mounting Arab security concerns following the regional uprisings that have so far ousted the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and brought the unrest to GCC member Bahrain. The island nation's neighbors fear the threat to that country's Sunni monarchy could endanger the kingdoms and emirates of the region. They have pulled together, railing against what they say is Iran's fueling of Shiite unrest in the Arabian Peninsula.

In those fears is a measure of political symbiosis that could provide the necessary impetus for Jordan's membership in a club that currently also groups Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar.

"Jordan is in desperate need of the GCC's umbrella to ease its economic hardships, while the GCC wants Jordan's security and military expertise at a time of regional instability," said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. "If anything happens in any GCC country, like the unrest that engulfed Bahrain, Jordan cannot intervene militarily if it's not a GCC member."

Last month, under a joint security pact, the GCC sent troops into Bahrain to support the country's king. Jordan is said to have sent a unit of about 800 police and army. The force, however, operated under the umbrella of Saudi Arabia to avoid being publicly as trying to crush the predominantly Shiite uprising.

Jordan is a vocal critic of Shiites, whom it accuses of harboring allegiance to Shiite Iran. Jordan's King Abdullah II, a Sunni and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, was the first Arab leader to warn of an Iranian-influenced Shiite "crescent" stretching from Iran across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The country stands out in that curve of nations as having neither a Shiite population nor good relations with Iran.

Membership in the GCC would offer an avenue for financial support for Jordan, an energy poor nation that relies extensively on foreign investment, tourism and worker remittances for its revenue.

While Jordan has so far been spared the kind of large-scale protests that have ravaged other nations, investors are eying the country nervously fearing that tensions could escalate given the prevailing economic challenges it faces. The country is saddled with a record deficit of $2 billion this fiscal year, a swelling foreign debt, rising inflation and rampant unemployment and poverty.

The GCC has already moved to help its members, pledging a total of $20 billion to Bahrain and Oman _ its two poorest members _ to help allay the economic troubles that have fueled the unrest. Membership in the bloc would give Jordan similar access to cash while also opening the door more easily for Jordanian professionals, such as doctors, engineers and teachers, to work in any of the GCC nations.

Tourism, which accounts for 14 percent of Jordan's GDP, may also receive a boost. Government figures show that the number of Gulf Arab tourists who visited Jordan last year made up 21 percent of the total number of sightseers.

Jordan could also benefit from increased oil donations from the Gulf Arabs.

The country currently imports all 120,000 barrels per day of crude it needs from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. Saudi Arabia also remains the largest Arab donor to Jordan, with cash contributions estimated at $10 billion in the last 15 years.

"The timing couldn't have been better, considering efforts to shore up Jordan's economy to avoid popular unrest," said economist Fahd Fanek. "Joining the GCC will increase aid in all kinds, create job opportunities for Jordanians and open the Gulf markets to the Jordanian products."