Yemen continues to be a security problem for Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. Since the 1962 revolution which saw the overthrow of its ruling family, and Egyptian President Nasser’s subsequent enthusiastic support of that revolution, Yemen has constituted a problem that requires active management by Saudi leaders.
As part of a wise and sustainable approach to dealing with “the Yemen problem,” the late King Faisal allowed the Yemeni labor force virtually unlimited access to the Saudi market and even extended those workers labor rights similar to those that Saudi citizens received. This created millions of jobs for Yemenis and contributed massively to Yemen’s economy.
While this policy was somewhat unpopular in Saudi Arabia (where Saudis sometimes saw the Yemenis as competition), it inherently recognized the danger posed by an unstable Yemen to the security of the Arabian Peninsula.
Unfortunately, this all came to a screeching halt with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and Ali Abdullah Saleh’s open support of Saddam Hussein. The Saudi government retaliated by expelling all Yemeni labor from the country. This would prove to be an unfortunate decision.
Yemen, from that time on, began a rapid decline to where it is today: a failed state by any standard. Not just any failed state, but one with a population of 20 million, critically short of water and at material risk of starvation — a citizenry that is also heavily militarized, harboring insurgents and terrorists, and inhabiting a country that is surrounded by the sea and only the GCC.
The point I make here is that Yemen’s problems can only overflow into the GCC and nowhere else, and consequently the GCC is stuck with Yemen and her destiny.
Yemen will crumble, and when this happens, the Yemenis will then climb over the walls into Saudi Arabia and the GCC. Nothing and no one will be able to stop them when they do. The implications of this should be painfully obvious to all.
To avert such a disaster, the GCC should immediately admit Yemen and give the Yemenis full access to all GCC labor markets. After all, the GCC states, which already host over 25 million foreign workers, have a huge absorptive capacity for labor. Not only will the Yemenis provide a more “natural” source of labor for these countries, but also Yemen, in turn, can then begin to grow into a large domestic market for GCC industrial goods and services.
Yemen should also immediately be supplied with massive amounts of aid. With the vast financial surpluses the GCC states now hold, the act of drowning Yemen quickly in wealth, even at the high risk of the inefficient distribution of that wealth, is probably the smartest use of GCC surplus capital. Time, after all, is now very short.
The analogy of the United States and Mexico, while not perfect, provides an interesting lesson here. Mexican immigration has been the nightmare of American conservatives for decades, as Mexicans slowly overwhelmed the border states to such a degree that Samuel Huntington (of The Clash of Civilizations fame) saw this Latino “invasion” as putting America’s Anglo-Saxon civilization at risk.
How did America address that problem? It established NAFTA, which to a large degree has turned Mexico, with all its problems, into a growing and vibrant economy. Today, for the first time, the numbers are beginning to show reverse immigration from the United States back to Mexico (in other words, more Mexicans are returning home than are coming into America, legally or illegally).
The GCC should take this lesson to heart and realize that integrating Yemen is the best and probably only way to protect itself from a Yemeni collapse.
Those who argue in favor of keeping 20 million poor Yemenis “with Kalashnikovs” out of the GCC are focusing on the trees and ignoring the forest.
Ali Shihabi is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard and the author of “Arabian War Games”. He blogs at alishihabi.com where this article was first published on May 29, 2012.