Commentary

Yemen and the GCC: Prospects for Membership

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By Ronan McGee – The Republic of Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that is not a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional organization that promotes cooperation among the Gulf Arab states. Although Yemen does not have a coastline on the Persian Gulf, it is the second largest state in the peninsula, and a debate about inviting Yemen to join reveals how the GCC’s mission is evolving in light of the security and economic challenges in the region.

When the GCC was created in 1981, the rationale was largely related to the security environment: the 1978 Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Soviet presence in South Yemen, and the divisions in the Arab world related to Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel led the six monarchies of the peninsula to create a new organization aimed at collective defense. Economic integration was less clear as an organizing principle, although progress on creating a free trade area, a customs union, and, potentially, a common currency has been made in recent years. 

Despite historic reluctance to allow other states from joining, recent events have signaled that Yemen may be granted membership in the near future. Yemen is already included in some GCC institutions and committees, and, in an attempt to reform its severely underdeveloped economy, has received substantial contributions from the World Bank, IMF and the GCC itself. Addressing Yemen’s issues will require much work on behalf of the GCC, but may yield several major benefits if regional integration is desired and implemented carefully.

The prospect of Yemen joining is controversial: an estimated 45% of its population lives below the line of poverty, unemployment is as high as 40%, GDP per capita is significantly lower than in the oil-rich kingdoms, and the levels of literacy and infrastructure lag behind its neighbors. Massive funding by the GCC would be necessary to overhaul Yemen’s economy and raise its standards to GCC norms. 

Yemen’s problems with lawlessness, political instability and terrorism raise additional questions. The GCC worries that labor market integration and the removal of certain border and travel restrictions on Yemen could cause instability to spill over. Yemen is also seen as a haven for terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda, and with an estimated 60 million firearms for a population of 20 million, arms trafficking is also a concern. Troubles in the Sa’dah region, where Shi’a tribes are rebelling against the central government, only further Yemen’s poor image.

Despite these concerns, some within both the GCC and Yemen have argued that simply ignoring Yemen and its problems is not a solution. Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, has claimed that Yemen should be seen as the “security background of the GCC,”[1] and GCC Secretary General Abdulrahman Bin Hamad al-Attiyah has reaffirmed Yemen’s security as “an inseparable part of the security of [GCC] member states.”[2]   

The GCC may benefit from drawing upon the European Union’s experience with regional integration, and slowly incorporate Yemen in stages.

If done correctly, Yemen’s GCC membership has potential benefits for all. Politically, it would be a catalyst for broader regional cooperation in common areas of interest. Economically, a wider market and removal of trade barriers would increase competition, output, investment, employment and trade[3] in the region. The large Yemeni population could also greatly contribute to the GCC labor market. Spillover effects into other sectors would occur, aiding regional economic diversification away from oil. With the right investment, the seaport of Aden could additionally become a major regional trade hub, and decrease the GCC’s reliance on the Strait of Hormuz, an area of tension with Iran. A further benefit to the GCC is Yemen’s strategic location around the chokepoint Bab al-Mandab, which is site to the proposed ‘Bridge of Horns’ that would connect Yemen with Djibouti, a project with massive investment potential.

As talks about incorporating Yemen continue, the GCC may consider creating more precise accession criteria which did not pertain to the original six members. This could involve requiring Yemen to adopt all economic agreements the GCC is party to, implementing policies already harmonized in the GCC, and setting specific economic targets, such as sector growth rates and the reduction of poverty levels.[4] Other actors with a potential interest, such as the EU, the Arab Monetary Fund or Islamic Bank for Development, could also provide technical and financial training.[5]

Yemen itself must work towards diversifying its economy, punishing mismanagement at lower levels of government, improving management of water resources, and taxing the production and sale of qat, a natural stimulant chewed by a large majority of the Yemeni population, which not only severely wastes the allocation of water use, but also drains the already low levels of income and labor force productivity. 

Any expansion of the GCC to incorporate Yemen must be done in careful progressive stages, with efforts being made on both sides. The setting of benchmarks on behalf of the GCC and reorganized governmental oversight on behalf of Yemen will significantly improve the chances of success in terms of the aforementioned potential benefits. An enlarged GCC could be of interest to the entire region, and would arguably lead to further cooperation in the future if integration is promoted effectively.


[1] Joseph A. Kechichian, “Yemen in the GCC?” Gulf News, February 7, 2008, http://www.gulfnews.com/opinion/columns/region/10187740.html.

[2] “Yemen unity is an inseparable part of GCC security,” Yemen Observer, September 5, 2009, http://www.yobserver.com/local-news/10017196.html.

[3] Saade Chami, Selim Elekdag and Ivan Tchakarov, What Are the Potential Economic Benefits of Enlarging the Gulf Cooperation Council?, (Washington, DC:  International Monetary Fund, Working Paper 04/152, 2004), 9.  

[4] Ahmed Farouk Ghoneim, Preparing Yemen for Better Economic Integration into GCC, (Sana’a, Republic of Yemen: Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation, 2006), 29.

[5] Ibid, 26.

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