By James M. Dorsey
World Politics Review
The United States and Europe are pressuring oil-rich members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GGC) to forge closer ties with Yemen in a bid to link the fight against al-Qaida to tangible economic benefits for the Arab world's poorest nation.
U.S. officials say the Obama administration recently conveyed to GCC leaders Yemen's reiteration of its 10-year-old request for GCC membership. The officials believe that U.S. and European endorsement of the request will prompt GCC leaders to respond more favorably when they meet in Abu Dhabi in December.
The U.S. and Europe are exerting pressure against the backdrop of an increasing number of attacks in Yemen on foreign diplomats and nationals. Suspected operatives of al-Qaida's Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), last week fired a rocket at a British embassy vehicle in the capital San'a. Employees of Austrian energy giant OMV were injured in a separate incident. The attacks on foreigners follow scores of incidents targeting Yemeni military and government officials. AQAP has killed some 100 Yemeni security and intelligence personnel in recent months in hit-and-run attacks launched by assassins on motorcycles using grenades and AK-47s.
The GCC's vested interest in ensuring stability in Yemen coupled with the Gulf's reliance for its security on the U.S. -- and to a lesser extent Europe -- militates in favor of the GCC moving beyond its repeated rejections of Yemen's aspirations. Gulf states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia, see their security threatened by AQAP as well as the Yemeni government's intermittent war against tribal rebels in the north and its fight with secessionists in the south.
The GCC, in a prelude to closer relations, has admitted Yemen to several of its institutions, including its councils of health, education, sports and culture ministers. GCC members also contribute substantially to funding of the Yemeni government's payroll. The GCC agreed last month at a meeting in New York of the Friends of Yemen, which groups 22 nations concerned about the growing strength of jihadists in the country, to open an office in San'a that would "help all donors to plan, coordinate and deliver assistance to Yemen more efficiently." GCC members have held back billions of dollars in aid pledged to Yemen because of concerns that the country would not be able to absorb the funds, and also due to widespread Yemeni corruption -- a weak argument for Gulf states that have transparency issues of their own.
A political marriage between the Gulf states and Yemen is likely to prove difficult for the conservative GCC members. In many ways, Yemen and the GCC states have little in common beyond geography and their Arab identity. Yemen is a republican democracy, at least in name, that ousted its royals in the 1960s; GCC members are all authoritarian monarchies that have forgotten that they once wallowed in the same abject poverty Yemen suffers today. Gulf leaders, particularly in Kuwait, have never really forgiven Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh for his support of Iraq during the 1990 Gulf War, in which U.S.-led forces reversed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Yemeni officials concede that in order to persuade the GCC, the government will have to improve the security situation, narrow the economic divide with the Gulf states and significantly reduce the country's addiction to qat, a plant stimulant consumed by a majority of Yemenis that is classified by the World Health Organization as a drug.
In lieu of granting Yemen full membership, the GCC is likely to look at ways of improving employment prospects for Yemenis. Yemen's economic problems were exacerbated in the early 1990s when Saudi Arabia expelled some 1 million Yemeni workers in retaliation for Yemen's support of Saddam. The expulsion deprived Yemen of badly needed remittances that were often invested into small and medium-sized enterprises that constitute the backbone of the Yemeni economy. GCC member states are discussing allowing Yemeni workers to return -- a move that segments of Gulf society, concerned about the high number of foreign, non-Arab workers in their countries, would welcome.
Twenty years on, many Yemeni workers lack the employment skills that Gulf states now require. One way GCC states may seek to compensate for that would be to grant Yemenis access to the same professional and technical training available to Gulf nationals. GCC states are also likely to fund job-creation programs in Yemen. A report commissioned by the Yemeni government recently estimated that Yemen needs to create 4 million new jobs in the next 10 years. A Saudi delegation visited Yemen this weekend as part of a project to develop Yemeni educational programs, prepare Yemeni trainers and help the government draft regulations for the Higher Yemeni Technical Institute, which is funded by the Islamic Development Bank and South Korea.
A recent report (.pdf) by a London School of Economics researcher suggested that stabilizing Yemen was a key GCC interest because the country's problems potentially foreshadow problems that could emerge elsewhere in the Gulf. "Yemen is the canary in the coal mine. It is an indication of what can go wrong when a country fails to develop political legitimacy and build a sustainable, productive non-oil economy," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of the report. "The challenges to government authority in southern and northern Yemen demonstrate how existing socio-economic discontent and regional marginalization can fracture and fragment social cohesion. Similar fissures and unequal patterns of access to resources exist in the GCC states and could become transmitters of conflict in the future."
The United States and Europe share GCC concerns about Yemen's lack of good governance. Getting the GCC to assume responsibility for helping Yemen ensure that its development aid is put to proper use will have the added advantage of focusing Gulf attention on transparency issues within the GCC itself.