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Yemen’s Prospects for Membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was created in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1981 under the rationale of Arabian Peninsula collective defense following the catalytic tremors of the 1978 Iranian Revolution, the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War and also because of Soviet meddling in southern Yemen. The GCC has made solid progress economically in terms of free trade, customs union and the aspiration of a common currency. GCC unity is maintained because member countries have similar political, religious and cultural identities. Member countries are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. Is it time for Yemen to join the GCC?

There has been much debate about the inclusion of Yemen as either an associate or a full GCC member. The crucial question to answer has tended to be centered on whether or not Yemen would add value or if it would drag down the alliance. In October 2012 the GCC established an office in Sana’a, Yemen, but this was set up to assist GCC support to Yemen, not necessarily as the first step to Yemeni membership.

Although the office in Sana’a is welcomed, it is not as prominent a step forward as was the spirit of the GCC Summit in December 2005 in the UAE during which a strategic resolution was passed for Yemen to join the GCC by 2015. There are several reasons why the GCC is stalling in letting Yemen join and there are some reasonable concerns with Yemen’s membership suitability.

Kuwait is an obstacle to Yemen joining the GCC. It still bears a grudge because former dictator President Ali Abdullah Saleh supported Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the so-called Yemeni betrayal. Kuwait’s government is concerned that Yemen is not yet ready to join based on internal Yemeni security challenges. Yemen is a un-governed space that is home to Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yemen also suffers from endemic government corruption. It would be a challenge to convince Kuwait’s Parliament to ratify a government decision to support Yemen as a GCC member. Kuwait is also worried that if Yemen joins the GCC then every Arab country might wish to join too.

Other GCC members have actively supported Yemen’s development. The UAE has made impressive contributions to Yemen’s development but Yemeni corruption and a lack of government capacity to absorb and distribute the donations within Yemen has reduced the impact of UAE generosity.

Oman has also stepped up to support Yemen but senior Omani diplomats fear that Yemen will lag too far behind; they conclude that aid is better than membership.

Qatar has stepped up to attempt to influence and resolve Yemen’s internal problems but has recently backed off as they have done equally across the region following the so-called Arab Spring. Qatar has voiced support for Yemen to join the GCC but – like other member states – the government is concerned about wholesale Yemeni migration into the GCC region. Bahrain has indicated that it is willing to support technical assistance projects in Yemen coupled with donations but has most recently been forced to focus on its own Qatari domestic agenda following the protests resulting from the so-called Arab Spring.

Notwithstanding Kuwaiti views, the major force affecting Yemen’s GCC membership is Saudi Arabia. Following Yemen’s support of Iraq for the Kuwait invasion, the Kingdom expelled about one million Yemeni workers who had until then been a useful source of cheap labor in the country. They returned to Yemen where the government lacked the capacity to absorb them thus triggering an economic downturn which some link directly to Yemen’s Civil War of 1994. Saudi Arabia is very concerned with the border situation with Yemen to its south and also worried Yemen may try to export its revolution to Riyadh.

The Shia Houthi rebels remain a threat to the Saudi homeland, linked as they are to Iran. The 1,100 mile-long wall being constructed by Saudi Arabia on its border with Yemen – at great cost – has already led to the deportation of over 200,000 Yemen workers. Saudi Arabia’s 2011 Arab Spring pledge to Yemen of US$1.25 billion dwarfs other GCC donations. Saudi Arabia possesses the ways and means to secure Yemen’s ascendancy to the GCC and within the context of a recent upturn in Yemen-U.S. relations and a downturn in U.S.-Saudi relations, an opportunity exists for both Washington and Riyadh working together to support Yemen. Yemen is a very different country today than it was under the 33-year reign of former dictator President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Europe is not the Gulf, but strategic lessons can be identified and learned from the evolution of the EU. In the fifteen-year period after the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia all joined the EU. The new countries joined based on economic conditions because EU integration incentivized market reforms under the so-called Copenhagen Criteria that governed EU accession.

The criteria clearly stated that member countries had to build institutions to assure rule of law, human rights, protection of minorities and capacity to develop competitive market economies. The prospect of EU expansion had attracted considerable foreign investment. The case study of EU expansion demonstrates that economic growth and the creation of democratic institutions occur with enlargement; ironically, new members of the EU like Latvia and Lithuania are the ones who are actively helping keep the EU economically afloat as Europe draws out of the recent world recession. Both countries are a success story; Latvia is predicted to grow 4% a year in 2014 and 2015, whereas, Lithuania will grow 3.5%. The GCC can learn from the EU experience.

Since 2011 Yemen has changed dramatically and some argue that it is a regional model for transitioning countries under the so-called Arab Spring. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in a blood-less change of power amid a GCC Initiative and reform mechanism. Signed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 30, 2011, by President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi – on behalf of the Republic – the agreement provides a template for Yemen’s transition.

An inclusive National Dialogue Conference concluded early in 2014 and set conditions for writing a new Yemeni Constitution, a national referendum followed by both Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Yemen’s new governance model has six sub-states designed to share power and resources across Yemen and address the fundamental southern question of equity. There is much debate about the efficacy of the six sub-states and concern that the existing south is divided into two sub-states rather than one, but there appears sufficient momentum in Yemen to move forward.

Although Yemen appears on the brink of relative success, it still suffers from a catalogue of destabilizing factors. These include 25% illiteracy among 15 to 24-year-olds, 50% unemployment, the highest poverty rate in the Arab World at 54% and a GDP per capita on par with Sub-Saharan Africa; half of Yemen’s 24 million people are food insecure and 1 million children under the age of 5 years are malnourished.

Compounding Yemen’s problems is a youth bulge meaning that at the current growth rate the population is set to rise to 50 million people by 2035. At that stage, Yemen will become one of the largest GCC country populations and nearly half the population would be under the age of fifteen. Water shortages through poor management and diminishing oil supplies, further complicate Yemen’s recovery. With the promise of the future, outlined within the National Dialogue Conference, Yemen is now truly at a crossroads and is ripe for investment and development under a GCC umbrella.

In August 2013, the U.S. signed a joint statement with Yemen in support of its political transition, economic and social development, plus security and counterterrorism. America’s main worry is the unfettered presence of AQAP in Yemen and thus the direct threat posed to U.S. security interests by it. Attacks have occurred from AQAP in Yemen against the U.S. as reflected in two underwear bomber attacks and a printer cartridge bomb attack. The U.S. cannot regenerate Yemen alone despite the threats posed by AQAP. A more logical, culturally sensitive and long-term solution rests with the GCC; Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula not a GCC member.

Ignoring Yemen and its problems is not a solution; there is important historical and cultural linkage between the GCC and Yemen. Yemen’s problems will spill over into the GCC if unchecked. Yemen is geographically close to and has links to East Africa. The threat from Al-Shebab and the transnational migration of people and weapons across the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Bab al-Mandab means that Yemen’s security is the backbone and inseparable from GCC security.

Drawing on the EU experience, Yemen within the GCC would have multiple benefits. Broader regional cooperation – linked to threats from East African states as mentioned before – would be a political benefit and fuse a common area of interest. A wider market through the removal of trade barriers between the GCC and Yemen would increase consumption and provide direct GCC access to the rapidly growing Yemeni population. Yemenis have traditionally been a ready source of low-skilled workers thus able to fill GCC jobs in construction and agriculture that the Saudis do not want. Yemenis should be given visas and permits to work. Yemen’s youth bulge provides a great contribution to the GCC’s enormous and absorptive labor market.

Yemen is strategically located and provides a link to the Suez Canal. Supporting the development of Yemen’s port at Aden could decrease GCC country reliance on the Straits of Hormuz to export oil and thus reduce tensions with Iran. Also, utilizing the aspirant “Bridge of Horns” connecting Yemen with Djibouti over the Bab al-Mandab opens a southern route of GCC influence into Yemen and then further penetration into growing East African markets.

Yemen’s challenges, despite recent successes and development, suggest a GCC mechanism would need to be put in place to convince member countries of the benefit and also to provide checks and balances that Yemen meets the key accession criteria which would be specifically written for Yemen. Included, for instance, would be job creation criteria, sector economic growth targets, security sector reform targets, weapons control regulations, qat restrictions, economic development and also poverty reduction, etc. Yemen joining the GCC would need to be managed with achievable metrics, focused on the utility of the GCC’s vast financial surplus, and conducted progressively in stages to build confidence among GCC members and in the people and new government of Yemen. Key to establishing that confidence would be a suggested national apology by Yemen to Kuwait because of the country’s support for the Iraq invasion.

Yemeni GCC membership – as a one-off – is both of a security and economic market benefit to the GCC. Yemen joining the GCC is the best way for the GCC to insulate itself from the impact of a possible Yemeni failure and/or equip itself to benefit from the possibility that Yemen succeeds.