The Middle East Channel

Yemen ought to be a full member of the GCC

When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) holds its annual summit in Abu Dhabi this December, it will likely confront the question of whether to admit Yemen as a full member. Yemen has been gradually incorporated into the club over the years: It already has full rights in certain GCC institutions, such as the Council of ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

When the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) holds its annual summit in Abu Dhabi this December, it will likely confront the question of whether to admit Yemen as a full member. Yemen has been gradually incorporated into the club over the years: It already has full rights in certain GCC institutions, such as the Council of Health Ministers, but it is still shut out from full participation in other bodies. It is Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s goal to be admitted as a full member sometime before decade’s end.

There is reason to believe that pressure is being applied on the GCC to hasten that outcome. The Kuwaiti Times reported on June 23that the United States conveyed a request from Yemen to the GCC for full council membership. After years of having its request for GCC membership denied, Yemen might receive a different answer this year because of the intercession of the United States, which serves as a powerful ally for many of the GCC states.. This opportunity provides the GCC a unique opportunity to revitalize its mission – but to do so, it will need to overcome some of its historical prejudices.

Yemen is in many respects the "other" for the GCC. Essentially a rich-country club, the GCC is repelled by Yemen’s poverty — an ironic development, given that sixty to seventy years ago, before oil was discovered on the Arabian Peninsula, these countries were arguably poorer. The GCC countries, in their rush to embrace modernity, financed by the greatest transfer of wealth history has ever seen, think of Yemen as their "primitive" and "backward" cousin, over whom they can feel superior. Again, this fact is somewhat ironic, given that Yemen has a greater civilizational history than they do.

Add to this mix the fact that the GCC states are all monarchies — and that Yemen threw out its royalty in 1962 and established what has been over time an enduring republic – and you have an even more potent fear. While Yemen’s democracy has faltered from time to time, at least it has periodic presidential and parliamentary elections (which international monitors have declared fair, by and large); this is more than can be said for the GCC states.

But perhaps the biggest sticking point to Yemen’s GCC membership was its support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, a diplomatic blunder on the part of the Sana’a regime that was economically disastrous for the country. Yemen, which is dependent on remittances from its expatriate laborers in the oil-rich Gulf states, was suddenly faced with an influx of about a million of its own people, who had been expelled from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Yemen still has not been forgiven for its fateful U.N. vote opposing the U.S.-led effort to expel Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. If one remembers how generously Kuwait, for one, had supported Yemen’s development throughout the 1970s and 1980s, one can understand why. Nonetheless, Yemen’s actions were largely symbolic, and occurred over two decades ago. But symbolism has often played a larger role in GCC affairs than reality – a fact attested to by the long-running controversy over Yemen’s admission.

The truth is that the GCC has substantially aided Yemen over the years, despite the fact that it is not a full member of the organization. The GCC knows that Yemen, a country with a population roughly the size of Saudi Arabia, must be helped or greater instability will ultimately knock on its countries’ backdoors. But most of the steps it takes are stop-gap measures: for example, bank-rolling Yemen’s treasury so that it can pay its government employees. The GCC pledged a multi-billion dollar assistance package to Yemen in the past, but then slowed down or halted its implementation on the grounds that it could not guarantee transparency. To be sure, corruption is a worry in Yemen – but  it is no less a worry in the Gulf, where corruption takes place on such an epic scale as to make Yemen’s look petty by comparison.

One suggestion that would have substantial benefits for Yemen is to allow Yemeni nationals back into the workforce of the Gulf states. With remittances flowing back into Yemen, there might be enough cash for investment in local development projects, as there was in the past. Yemen’s economy has always been largely reliant on small-scale business in any case. Currently, the Gulf states are largely dependent upon Asian immigrant laborers for their building boom, and if there is one "other" they fear more than Yemenis, it is Indians and Filipinos. Many Gulf residents are aghast to find their children learning Urdu and Tagalog instead of Arabic from their maids and nannies.

The counter-argument to this suggestion is that Yemenis are not skilled enough to occupy even the lowest rungs in the construction industry. But Yemenis could undergo professional and technical training in the Gulf, alongside Gulf nationals from other states, followed by job experience in its building industry, and then these retrained and experienced  laborers could re-enter the Yemeni workforce. In the meantime, however, an economic plan for job growth in Yemen would have to be implemented to accommodate the returnees, which would no doubt require further assistance from the GCC.

Presumably, even such ambitious plans could be carried out without Yemen becoming a full-fledged member in the GCC — so why push for this step now? Because symbolic gestures can send powerful messages. It would be a message of unity with a country that is not only struggling, but undergoing real suffering; a message that this country is a full member of the family rather than a poor relation who is given a handout and then told to go away; a message of hope in a time of despair; and most of all, it would be a message of forgiveness and of healing, both of which are badly needed today.

Dr. Steve C. Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.

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