The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has been instrumental in initiating and providing a structure for the Yemeni National Dialogue Conference, a process that seeks to resolve the longstanding tensions and differences between the competing political factions in Yemen. This effort is referred to as the GCC Initiative, and while commendable in that it effectively ended the violent battles that raged in 2011 in the capital, Sana’a, and allowed for a peaceful transfer of power from former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, it falls far short of addressing Yemen’s endemic political and economic problems. The GCC, led by Saudi Arabia with respect to policy toward Yemen, has offered financial help to the Yemeni government and people in various forms, and has sought to influence the different Yemeni actors towards a resolution of their differences. However, this aid remains insufficient because Yemen’s problems are deeply structural.
Yemen is the poorest Arab country, and its profile compares to some of the least developed sub-Saharan nations in Africa. Its seemingly endemic problems include: severe malnutrition, explosive demographic growth, stratospheric unemployment and poverty rates, pervasive corruption and government misrule, rapidly depleting natural resources (oil, gas and water), a highly militarized population, deep political divisions based on regional and religious identity, and a large and organized presence of Al-Qaeda fighters who persistently employ terror attacks. The Southern part of Yemen wants to secede and form a separate country, and the northernmost provinces are ruled by a Shi’ite movement, commonly called the Houthis, which is deeply suspicious of the central government and increasingly falling under Iran’s influence. Yemen, in short, is a failed state, and if it were to implode into a civil war, the repercussions in terms of refugees and political instability would reverberate throughout the GCC countries, and most particularly in Saudi Arabia, which shares a 1,800-kilometer border with its southern neighbor.
Riyadh’s present policy aims to appease particular Yemeni political factions and does not engage with others, such as the Houthis. It is a highly personalistic approach which does not deal with Yemen as an entity with systemic problems. To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia recently initiated a campaign of expelling illegally resident Yemeni workers from the Kingdom, and thus far several hundred thousand have been forcibly returned. This recent action is reminiscent of the events surrounding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, when soon after and because of then-President Saleh’s pro-Saddam position, the Kingdom expelled between 800,000 and 1 million Yemeni guest workers. Because these workers’ remittances were cut off and they posed a major burden after their return home, Yemen spiraled into an economic and political decline that ended up in a civil war in 1994 and the development of an increasingly corrupt, brutal and rapacious clique around Saleh.
If Yemen is ever to become a stable country, the GCC, under Riyadh’s leadership, will have to become more proactive in the process of bringing all Yemenis to agree on a major transformation of the country’s politics, as well as offer carefully regulated employment opportunities for Yemenis in the GCC labor markets. Here are some concrete policies that can be adopted to help stave off the impending disaster. First, it is important that the GCC has strong communication links and develop real influence with all Yemeni factions. This includes the Houthis, who need to be persuaded to abandon Iran. This is not as difficult as it sounds because Saudi Arabia, for example, has deep and long-standing relations with various Zaydi families dating back to the years of the civil war in the 1960s, and whose influence with the Houthis is significant. Saudi Arabia will also have to exert influence on the Salafists in Yemen to tone down their anti-Zaydi rhetoric and activity so that peace can prevail in the Northern provinces.
Second, the GCC has to help the Yemenis find a federal political structure that will address the grievances of the Southerners, who feel that they have been occupied and marginalized by the Northerners since 1994. Helping the economic development of the South, by among other things developing the port of Aden, will prove important in this regard because it will boost the South’s economy. Without the Southerners feeling that they have a stake in a united Yemen, the country will fracture. Third, the GCC has to marginalize Saleh and his influential family members, as well as the Ahmar tribal sheikhs, by convincing them to exit the political game altogether. The UN special envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has specifically mentioned that the Saleh family is undermining the national dialogue process of reconciliation. The Ahmars are no better.
Fourth, Al-Qaeda has to be dealt with more effectively, and the US policy of using drones to kill its leadership, which has the support of the GCC, has proven ineffective. Judging from the recent and massive suicide attack against the Ministry of Defense in Sana’a, it is clear that Al-Qaeda remains a strong and organized force in the country. This movement can only thrive because it has received safe haven among, and support from, several of the tribes of Yemen. The GCC, again, has long experience in dealing with tribal structures and leaders, and it is important that they bring this to bear to create a rift between the tribes and Al-Qaeda. The tribal regions have to be incentivized to turn against Al-Qaeda in ways similar to those used with the tribes of Anbar province in Iraq during the US occupation.
While all the above policies will push Yemen’s politics in a more positive direction, there remains the issue of the severe economic underdevelopment in the country. This can only be addressed effectively if the GCC countries are to invest in Yemen to create jobs and opportunities. More important still would be if the GCC were to open, in a controlled fashion, its labor markets to Yemenis. The latter could replace most of the unskilled Asian guest workers who are employed throughout the GCC by the millions. Over many past decades, Yemenis have proven themselves to be able and diligent workers in the GCC countries, and at no point have they constituted a domestic political threat. As such, bringing them back will not constitute a danger.
The most effective way to help Yemen’s economy would be to allow Yemenis to work in the GCC. Unfortunately, the GCC appears to be adopting the reverse policy because it seeks to create employment opportunities for its own citizens. GCC citizens, however, will never take up the lowly jobs that Yemenis occupy. The present policy of expelling Yemenis will create more suffering and frustration in Yemen and lead to the exacerbation of an already dire situation. It is urgent that the GCC sees its own fate as being linked to that of Yemen—before a rude awakening takes place when Yemen implodes and proceeds to export its problems to its neighbors.
The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.