Closer integration with Yemen will benefit the Gulf states – but only if the GCC can persuade Yemenis of that, writes Faisal Al Yafai
Yemen will not be easily persuaded to join the GCC
Almost forgotten amid the hope of Yemen’s Arab Spring and its later collapse into chaos and war was the plan that Yemen should have joined the Gulf Cooperation Council by now.
Back in 2007, when there were brighter hopes for the country’s accession to the GCC, a date of 2015 was set. That seems a long time ago now – but bringing Yemen into the GCC remains a prize worth aspiring to, even if not on such favourable terms as a decade ago.
The arguments in favour of the GCC more closely integrating with Yemen are difficult to refute. Those who argue that Yemen should be brought in as a full member point out that it would give an enlarged GCC an economic advantage.
Yemen’s population of 26 million is more than the population of all the GCC countries combined (excluding expatriates). That is both a vast market for GCC products, particularly from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and a vast pool of labour – people who share a language, religion and culture with the other members.
Perhaps of greater interest is Yemen’s lower labour costs. If integration reduced or removed barriers to business, GCC companies could base themselves in Yemen and benefit from much lower manufacturing costs.
The real clincher, however, is security. A country of Yemen’s size and vulnerability on the Arabian Peninsula, bordering two GCC countries, is too much of a risk to leave unprotected. The Saudi-led coalition has spent the best part of a year pushing back the Iranian-backed Houthis. The only way to ensure that their influence does not return is to draw Yemen more tightly into the GCC fold.
Full GCC membership would be difficult, however. Full integration would require widespread reform of governance, economics and the rule of law.
There is an interim solution, however. That would be an “associate” membership of the GCC that would make visas for Yemenis easier to obtain and make businesses for the GCC easier to open. This is the kind of agreement that Morocco now has with the European Union, and it would make closer integration possible, without the leap of faith full integration would require.
On the security front, too, closer ties would present an opportunity for the GCC. A combined GCC force could be stationed in Yemen to enhance the Yemeni army.
Speaking in Abu Dhabi last week, Yemen’s former foreign minister, Riyad Yassin, made this argument. He pointed out that, after all the damage sustained by Yemeni army units – those loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and current president Abdrabu Mansour Hadi – rebuilding an army of the same size would require vast resources.
“A gigantic army like that of Saleh would void 40 per cent of the Yemeni budget,” he said.
Instead, a better solution would be to maintain a smaller standing army, enhanced by a small GCC force. But this force, which doesn’t yet exist, would provide the GCC with a trial for any larger integration of their military forces – something that is currently underway, through, most recently, the Northern Thunder military exercises.
But the sticking point is the politics. After so long arguing in favour of joining the GCC, after this latest war, the Gulf may find Yemenis are not now so easily persuaded.
The revolution and the war against the Houthis have also changed the political calculations over membership. Yemen in the 2000s was more united as northern and southern parts than it is today.
Indeed, the real political winners from this period of chaos has been the Southen Movement, also known as Hirak, which seeks to remove the historic South Yemen from union with the north.
So entrenched has the feeling of secession become across south Yemen – the common view is that the Houthi rebels, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and basically anyone else north of Taez, is a “northerner”, a term that is now close to derisory – that it will be extremely difficult to overcome.
Even the plan to create a federal state with six regions, which was to be enacted in 2014 and which precipitated the war with the Houthis, would now be hard to bring back.
After being shelled, shot at and besieged by Houthi rebels and army units loyal to Mr Saleh, southern Yemenis will take some persuasion to stay in a united Yemen. All the more reason for Mr Saleh and his militias, as Mr Yassin argued last week, “not to be rewarded for their terror in any future settlement”.
The reward though is worth the effort. The best way of stabilising the country and the broader peninsula remains a united Yemen with closer ties to the GCC. The war has changed much, however, and ironically getting Yemen into the GCC will now be easier than persuading Yemenis to stay united.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai