x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The GCC and Yemen can still dance to the same tune

After Sunday's drama in Sanaa, it may seem that peaceful change is a huge challenge. Our columnist has a suggestion: let Yemen into the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The events at the UAE's embassy in Sanaa on Sunday, including a helicopter rescue of foreign diplomats, may have buried one plan for ending the political impasse in Yemen, but another one cannot be far behind. For months now, the Yemeni president, the people protesting daily and international mediators like the Gulf Cooperation Council have conducted an awkward political dance, retracing their steps, going forward and backwards.

With every new step, a denouement seems to move further away. And then the music changes, and another plan emerges.

The GCC has been heavily involved in trying to negotiate an end to popular unrest that has gripped Yemen because the stability of that country is so important for the security of all the nations of the Arabian Peninsula.

Yet as much as the GCC has been heavily involved, it has been reluctant to take the step that would most aid its largest neighbour - bringing Yemen into the GCC club.

In a sense, it should be an obvious step. The GCC clearly wants to do something to help Yemen and, at the same time, clearly wants to expand (hence its recent overtures to bringing Jordan and Morocco into the club). The obvious place to expand to is Yemen. Instead of trying to help Yemen from the outside, it would be better to bring it into the fold.

For a long time, the arguments against Yemen joining the GCC were weak but convincing, focused on financial assistance and the free movement of people. With a far greater population than most GCC countries and fewer natural resources, Yemen would require a significant inflow of financial assistance. At the same time, the free movement of nationals within an expanded GCC would lead to many Yemenis seeking work in the Gulf, straining those nations.

Yet the GCC's mooted expansion to include Morocco and Jordan undermines many of the arguments against Yemen's inclusion. Population is chief among these.

Morocco, with admission, would be the largest country in the GCC, larger in fact than five of the six countries combined. Although its economy is growing, Morocco still has significant numbers of citizens who would migrate to other GCC countries for economic reasons. Many Jordanians have already done so. The same applies to Yemen.

If and when Morocco decides to join (early indications suggest they are somewhat reluctant), the detail of whether a common market would initially be part of its membership will also signal an answer for Yemen. If the GCC can absorb Morocco's citizens, it will be able to handle Yemen's.

The rather minor point - which was hardly a minor point before, since it offered the geographical rationale for the GCC - namely that the Gulf Cooperation Council must have some link to the Arabian Gulf, appears to have been long forgotten. No part of Jordan touches the Arabian Gulf. Morocco doesn't even share the same continent.

Another argument against Yemen's inclusion has been its political system. As a republic with local and national elections - and enfranchisement of women - its system of government is different from that of the GCC countries, and from those of Jordan and Morocco, all of which are monarchies. Yet Jordan and Morocco have parliaments, like Yemen, and many GCC countries boast national assemblies.

In itself, differing systems of government should not be an obstacle. So much of the work of the GCC is not focused on political issues, but economic and security co-operation. The GCC should be an institution to foster closer union, not a club of kings.

The argument for expansion to Yemen has always been fairly strong. Cultural, religious and linguistic ties are extremely strong, with many families and clans in the Gulf tracing their heritage to Yemen and many current ties of marriage. The number of expatriate Yemenis across the region further entrenches the connectivity among the countries.

For Yemen, the GCC would bring not only its significant economic resources, but also the experience of building stable institutions. Yemen urgently needs strong institutions that will be able to cope with the upheaval that will be generated by moving to a post-oil future, and reformatting the economy to accommodate a growing population.

This last point also works the other way: Yemen's accession would provide an influx of brains and brawn for the economies of the GCC, as well as a large potential destination for investment. There is enormous scope for developing tourism, commerce and industries in Yemen. The possibility of basing manufacturing in Yemen - with its lower business costs and competitive labour rates - must appeal to GCC firms, along with the massive untapped market for goods and services.

Tying Yemen into the economy of the GCC would also contribute to security, concerns that are exercising not only the GCC but the international community. The security situation in the country has not been stabilised, a situation that is especially worrying to Saudi Arabia, given its long border with its neighbour. Yemen's accession to the GCC is in the clear interests of both parties.

The GCC is now engaged in an awkward dance with Yemen. It would be better for both if in the future they trod the same steps together.