Yemen in numbers

$3.7bn: Amount GCC states planned to spend in Yemen between 2007-2010

40 per cent: Proportion of the population living in poverty in Yemen

2015: Tentative date for Yemen joining the GCC

Sources: MEED; World Bank

An economic and security analyst who regularly works in Yemen still tells the story of how, in 2001, the country was admitted to a number of committees within the GCC as part of efforts to bring the country closer to its neighbours after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. Sanaa became part of the education, health, sport and social affairs committees. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh noted wryly at the time that perhaps the next step would be full membership of the GCC basketball team.

They are members of a couple of committees, but it is a bit like Turkey and the EU … [The GCC] just don’t want them

Eckart Woertz, Gulf Research Centre

In 2009, Yemen was admitted to four more GCC organisations, which oversee standardisation, industrial consulting, accounting and audit organisation, and radio and television broadcasts in the Gulf. But Saleh was not wide of the mark; full membership of the council is still a long way off.

Security threat

“They are members of a couple of committees, but it is a bit like Turkey and the EU,” says Eckart Woertz, director of economic studies at the Dubai-headquartered Gulf Research Centre. “[The Gulf states] just don’t want them.”

Yemen’s ambitions to join the GCC, which is currently made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar remain undiminished. In June, local media reported Sanaa had approached the US administration to lobby the GCC for full membership.

Neither governments have commented on the rumour nor has the council. Sources close to the GCC secretariat confirm Western governments are increasingly keen and vocal that Sanaa be granted full accession to the council. Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest state and high on a list of potential security threats to the region and Western world.

Sanaa’s aspirations to join the GCC are not new. The council was formed in 1981 as a response to regional security threats, including the then-communist republic of South Yemen and the Iranian revolution. Saleh had been keen to become part of the council before unification in 1990, when he was only president of the former North Yemen. The Yemeni government made its first formal bid to join the GCC in 1996. Since then progress has been slow at best and non-existent at worst. Under the government’s current plans for economic development, a 2015 deadline has been set for full accession to the council.

Regional politicians and analysts remain sceptical about this timeline. They also doubt whether Yemen will ever be fully integrated into the council, largely because of the questionable economic benefits of allowing the country access to the GCC single market.

The problem is that the Gulf states see Yemen as a distinct and alien entity, says a former Middle East-based British diplomat.  Although they are concerned about security in the country, the GCC’s member states do not want to become embroiled in its well-documented problems. Yemen is facing a secessionist movement in the south and a rebel tribal movement in the north. There is also the growing presence of the extreme Islamist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Sanaa is facing a mounting cash crisis.

“They haven’t over a long period of time wanted Yemen to join [the GCC], because they don’t see their interests as being aligned,” he says. “The GCC regards itself as homogeneous and Yemen as extremely different.”

Problem state

The global economic turmoil in 2008-2009 has lessened the Gulf states’ belief that they can afford to admit Yemen and its myriad problems, especially given its weak fiscal state.

The GCC set a tentative 2015 date for accession to the council after a meeting in 2005, in line with Yemen’s aspirations. But at a GCC meeting held in February to discuss the country’s problems, no mention was made of the plans. The members now see Yemen as a problem to solve, not a potential new member.

Yemen is unique in the Arabian peninsula in a number of ways. It is the only republic in the region run by a president, who, on paper at least, is democratically elected.

Known in the past as Arabia Felix, it was once the breadbasket of the region. Agriculture remains the main source of employment in the country, contrasting with the largely barren desert states elsewhere in the peninsula. It is also, in striking contrast to the GCC states, both populous and undeniably poor.

Yemen is home to an estimated 24.4 million people, second only to Saudi Arabia’s 26.1 million, which also includes the 8.8 million expatriate workers in the kingdom. Yemen dwarfs Bahrain and Qatar, home to less than 3 million people combined.

The size of Yemen’s population is not reflected in its economic output, which in 2009 was a nominal $25.1bn. The UAE’s gross domestic product last year was nearly 1,000 per cent larger at $229.9bn, while Saudi Arabia’s GDP was $438bn. One thing it shares with its Gulf neighbours is an overwhelming dependence on oil, exports of which accounted for 76 per cent of state revenues in 2009. Oil made up 80 per cent of government revenues for similarly-sized Saudi Arabia that year, but the kingdom earned $154bn, almost 10 times the $1.96bn raised in Yemen.

Yemen’s oil production is projected to fall in the coming years and the country is likely to become a net importer from 2015 – the year it has targeted for full membership of the GCC. Production is expected to grind to a halt by around 2025.

Migration issues

At the heart of Yemen’s problems is a looming economic crisis. Unemployment in the country is somewhere between 20-40 per cent, say government sources. The standard of education is the worst in the peninsula, with just 59 per cent of Yemen’s adult population judged to be literate by the UN in 2007, compared with 80-90 per cent in GCC member states. Meanwhile, the Washington-headquartered World Bank estimates that more than 40 per cent of Yemen’s population is living in poverty.

With oil reserves running out and its population growing, Yemen needs to find work for its people. Access to the GCC common market would allow Yemenis to move around in the region freely and reduce this pressure, but it will also trigger an influx of people into neighbouring states.

“The Yemenis are at a completely different stage of economic development,” says Woertz. “The [GCC states] don’t want to see it falling down, but they don’t want it to join the GCC because there would be large-scale economic migration.”

The Gulf states have been wary of the country since Saleh declared his support for the regime of Saddam Hussein after the 1991 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, says a Kuwaiti politician.

Before then, Yemenis were a major component of the regional labour market. Saleh’s decision to back Hussein led to the expulsion of Yemenis from the GCC, with Saudi Arabia in particular sending an estimated 1 million people home. Since 1991, the Gulf states have turned increasingly to labour from Asia.

Yemenis are now allowed to work in the Gulf, but find it hard to compete with Pakistani and Indian labourers. “Yemeni politicians have asked the GCC governments to replace Asian labour with Yemeni labour, but the Gulf countries sometimes don’t trust the Yemenis because of political issues like their support of Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War,” Woertz says. “There are also considerable security risks for more open borders.”

In August 2009, Saudi Arabian Deputy Interior Minister Mohamed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud met with a Yemeni man, who claimed to be a repentant Islamic extremist. He detonated a bomb that almost killed the young prince and was later described as a member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Prince Mohammed’s father, Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud had dedicated much of the past decade to driving the group out of the country.

Saudi tensions

There is also ill-will towards Saudi Arabia on the part of the Houthi tribesmen based in the northern Sadaa province of Yemen. In 2009, a conflict between the Houthis and Sanaa spilled over the border, leading to Saudi Arabia’s first military action in another country since 1967 as it moved to quell the fighting. The likelihood of the GCC’s most powerful member allowing Yemenis to enter the country freely remains slim as a result.

The GCC will, however, try and ease Yemen’s problems. The council planned to spend $3.7bn on development schemes in Yemen between 2007-2010, although government and GCC sources say that only a fraction of this amount has actually been used, largely because of a lack of capacity to handle major projects in Sanaa.

For now, the GCC states want to work towards speeding up the development of new projects in the country as donors rather than as investors. After the February council meeting, recommendations for long-term solutions to Yemen’s difficulties did not include joining the community. Rather, it employed the language of Western governments approaching the developing world, which is, says an attendee, largely how the country is seen.

“The attitude is like the US towards a poor country in Africa, not of Germany towards France or even Greece,” he says.

The GCC member states are expected to humour Sanaa’s ambitions in the hope that this helps the country work on economic development and good governance. But full membership of the council will remain a distant, and likely frustrating, dream.

“There might be lip service to allowing them to join a few more committees, but they will want to keep them at arm’s length,” Woertz says. “Simply, there is [too] huge a gap in the economies.”