GCC agrees five-year aid plan for Morocco and Jordan

Cash amount for proposed new members will be announced in December as analysts say coalition is looking for 'strength in numbers'.

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The Gulf Cooperation Council has announced plans to fund a five-year development aid programme for Jordan and Morocco, both monarchies that are proposed as new members of the bloc.

The amount will be decided on in December, the GCC's secretary general, Abdullatif Al Zayani, of Qatar, said after a meeting of the council's foreign ministers in Jeddah on Sunday.

Following the fall of entrenched, US-backed regimes in Egypt and Tunisia this year, Gulf countries are seeking closer ties with counterparts in the region to help quell or prevent protests and encourage greater stability, analysts say.

"They're also looking for strength in numbers to rein in what they see as Shia Iran's regional ambitions," said Gerald Butt, editor of MENA Prospect, a new London-based weekly focusing on political risk. "It's a consolidation of monarchies that are solidly Sunni."

The GCC in May said it welcomed a request by Jordan to join its coalition, currently compriding the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and that it had sent a membership invitation to Morocco. The Jeddah gathering was the first to include ministers from the two countries since that surprise announcement.

Jordan and Morocco have seen some protests but have weathered the upheavals in the Arab world by offering constitutional reforms and plans to boost jobs.

The GCC agreed in Jeddah to establish committees to study the induction of the two non-Gulf states into the six-nation bloc,

"There is no timetable" for accession, Jordan's foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, said. "Discussions will continue."

The Hashemite kingdom has a healthy trading relationship with the coalition. But Morocco is geographically closer to France than Qatar, and was pleasantly surprised by what was widely seen a quirky decision by the GCC to invite the distant kingdom into its ranks.

Jordan and Morocco clearly stand to benefit economically from GCC membership but it is less clear what the Gulf alliance stands to gain. "In Jordan's case the attraction could be assistance to Gulf states by its well-trained military," Mr Butt said in a telephone interview.

Mr Al Zayani said the size of the aid package will be discussed by GCC heads of state at their next summit in December. It is likely to be large.

Within the bloc, richer Gulf countries have offered $10 billion (Dh36.7bn) each in development funds to Bahrain and Oman, where protesters took the streets this year demanding reforms.

Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim royal family has long ruled over a Shiite majority, crushed weeks of street protests in March calling for greater political freedoms, a constitutional monarchy and an end to sectarian discrimination.

Saudi Arabia sent troops and the UAE sent police into the emirate to help suppress the protests, aggravating regional tensions with Iran, which Bahrain has accused of stoking the unrest. Bahraini Shiites deny being steered by Tehran, which insists it has no involvement in that country's internal problems.

A statement by GGC foreign ministers on Sunday accused Iran of issuing provocative pronouncements about the bloc's members.

Tehran vehemently rejected that accusation yesterday, and blamed media "run by the world arrogance" - the United States - for trying to undermine its "good neighbourly" relations with the GCC.

Also at the meeting, which was chaired by the Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, the council affirmed its efforts to combat terrorism. It called on the international community to push for the establishment of a centre to exchange information and expertise on the subject and "coordinate among states to monitor and control the movement of organisations and terrorist elements and thwarts their plans", according to WAM.