Yemen’s GCC membership is rightly back on the agenda
The ambition to join the GCC goes back to the 1990s, and has seen some progress in the previous decade
If the news is confirmed, the intention of Yemen’s government in exile to request membership in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) this month comes at an awkward time. The country is engulfed in a complex war, most state institutions are non-existent, and there is a serious humanitarian crisis to address. Additionally, the GCC has plenty on its diplomatic plate.
Naturally worried about the consequences of a likely nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1, GCC heads of state and foreign ministers are numerous preparatory meetings for a key summit with the administration of President Barack Obama at the end of next week at Camp David. Top of the agenda will be U.S. security guarantees to the GCC states, as well as their concerns about Iran’s actions in the Arab world, especially in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Yemeni membership could bring great economic benefits for both sidesManuel Almeida
Yet it is exactly the gravity of the crisis in Yemen that demands new solutions rather than a return to the status quo ante. Whenever the war is over, Yemen’s new government will need all the help it can get to create jobs, rebuild and improve infrastructure, and deal with fast-declining oil revenues and foreign reserves.
It is difficult to see how those challenges can be met if Yemen, the poorest Arab country, remains an outcast next to the energy-rich GCC states, which are increasingly connected to the global economy. According to the World Bank, before the current war Yemen’s GDP per capita was 40 times lower than the GCC average.
The ambition to join the GCC goes back to the 1990s, and has seen some progress in the previous decade. In 2001, Yemen became a member of four of the GCC’s non-political committees, and was accepted as a partial member the following year. The 2005 GCC summit in Abu Dhabi set out a stage-by-stage process for full membership, and said Yemen’s integration should start by 2015.
However, progress soon gave way to disappointment. The absence of an agreement among GCC states about criteria for the integration of new members, the lack of institutional capacity of the GCC Secretariat, and legitimate worries among member states about Yemen’s worsening instability undermined the process.
In particular, GCC security concerns about the presence of Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the Houthi insurgency in the north, and Al-Hirak southern separatists slowed the momentum that had been built. There were also fears about Yemen’s different political system, booming population, and the potential influx of too many Yemeni migrants.
The failure of billions of dollars of Gulf aid to Yemen to make a substantial impact, due to corruption and lack of government capacity to absorb and distribute it, also played a role. These problems were not resolved by the establishment in 2012 of a GCC office in Sanaa to assist with the implementation of GCC support to Yemen.
Until recently, there were also different positions among GCC members about Yemeni membership. For example, Oman was vocal in its support despite some reservations, while Kuwait was reluctant. Critical to Kuwaiti foot-dragging was the decision by Yemen’s then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh to abstain or vote against a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions that eventually authorized U.S.-led action against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
There are obviously strong political reasons behind the Yemeni government’s request to join the GCC, and many questions remain about Yemeni reactions to that prospect. However, the disparity between a very poor and problematic country, and far more stable and immensely richer states, seems unsustainable for everyone. For neighboring Saudi Arabia and Oman in particular, the permanent collapse of Yemen could have disastrous consequences.
However, Yemeni membership could bring great economic benefits for both sides. Yemen’s booming population, currently estimated at 25 million but expected to almost double in two decades, is a problem that could be partially turned into an opportunity. It represents a market to be explored by the GCC if general economic conditions in Yemen improve, and Yemenis could fill the many jobs that are unlikely to be taken by current GCC citizens.
A study by experts from the International Monetary Fund, published in 2007 in the International Economic Journal, estimated that Yemen’s integration in the GCC would lead to substantial economic benefits for all parties, on the consumption, investment, trade and employment fronts. Economic integration, the authors said, could lead to 14 percent GDP growth in Yemen and 7 percent in the GCC.
It is evident that under present conditions Yemeni membership would be pointless. It would be impossible to materialize that membership into real gains for Yemen, or for any other member for that matter, before the war is over, a political deal is struck and minimum stability is achieved. However, it will probably be too late if the GCC states wait until Yemen gets back on its feet on its own to then move forward with the process.
Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.
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