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Yemen Crisis Spurs Regional Activism

Author: Thomas W. Lippman, Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
April 25, 2011

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The proposed solution to the political crisis in Yemen offered by the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) appears unlikely to bring about a peaceful resolution.

Many of the protesters who have been demanding the departure of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have rejected the GCC plan because it includes amnesty for him. Saleh, who has agreed to give up his office in a month but only in an orderly transfer of power, has rejected demands that he quit immediately.

"We are committed to constitutional legitimacy and don't accept chaos," he told an interviewer on Sunday evening. "Whom shall I hand it over to? Those who are trying to make a coup? No. We will do it through ballot boxes and referendum."

If this stalemate continues, the violence in Yemen is also likely to continue. The longer-term significance of this episode may turn out to be not the fate of Yemen but the new era of regional activism that seems to be developing in the GCC, which until very recently was a negligible actor in regional security matters.

The GCC was created in 1981 as an economic and cultural grouping of the six Sunni Muslim monarchies on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. The organization's effectiveness has long been undermined by internal rivalries—in particular, the small sheikhdoms' fear of being overpowered by Saudi Arabia—and despite token efforts has never achieved a common security strategy or built an effective joint defense force. [In his last months as chief of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the GCC countries in its area of responsibility, Gen. David Petraeus declared publicly that he had given up on trying to forge the six countries into a coherent joint force.]

But fear is a powerful motivator, and two large fears have galvanized the GCC into joint actions, under the leadership of a new secretary general, Abdul Latif al-Zayyani, a Bahraini who took office during the height of the turmoil in his country.

Alarmed by what GCC members saw as Iranian troublemaking on their side of the Gulf, the GCC endorsed and expedited the decision by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to send security forces into Bahrain. It torpedoed a planned Arab summit conference in Baghdad because Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom they regard as an ally of Tehran, criticized GCC leaders for their crackdowns on dissidents. And it crafted a plan for Saleh to step aside.

Yemen is not a member of the GCC; [not being a monarchy, it was automatically excluded from membership.] But it has long, porous borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman, is a center of strength for al-Qaeda, and presents a long-term threat to GCC stability if state failure and a looming water shortage spark large-scale cross-border migration.

Whatever the outcome in Yemen, those in Washington and in friendly GCC governments who are concerned about regional stability may welcome the potential emergence of the group as an active player, in their own interests.

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