Understanding the Role of Tribes in Yemen
Oct 31, 2011
Yemen is famous for its tribes. All observers agree that tribes are powerful political actors in Yemen and central to Yemeni culture and society. Yet there is no agreement on the precise definition of a tribe, and there is no consensus on the nature of the relationship between Yemeni tribes and the Yemeni state. As a result, there is a broad consensus that tribes are important in understanding Yemeni politics and society at the same time there is widespread confusion about what a tribe is. People often talk past each other in the conversation about tribes in Yemen.
One way to think about the concept of tribe might be as a form of social organization with its own ethics, system of justice and politics. This view of tribes is focused on the internal affairs of the tribe and speaks about tribal custom, or urf. Another way to think of tribes might be their independent force in relation to the state. This view of the tribe focuses on their “foreign relations” with the rest of society. A third way to think of tribes, or tribalism, is as an ethic or set of political values in a national context. This view of tribalism is focused on the ways that tribalism is used in national politics for a political agenda. Related to this third view of tribalism is the role that certain tribal leaders play in national politics. These tribal leaders are playing roles that are not “tribal” in the first sense of the word, but rather they are fashioning a role for themselves in national politics, even while tribal social organization, the first sense of tribe, may be unraveling.
Therefore, this article attempts to provide clarity on the meaning of “tribe” in Yemen. One important reason to recognize these different angles from which to view tribes in Yemen is that the current overly broad conceptualization of tribe may miss important changes that are occurring in Yemeni society today.
Overestimating Tribal Power in Yemen
While the meaning of tribes may not be fixed, Westerners are certainly fixated on tribes. The prominent Yemeni political analyst Abdul Ghani al-Iryani recently argued that Westerners overestimate the role of tribes in Yemeni politics in general. He is focusing on the view of the tribe as an external fighting force, which is a popular conception among Westerners. No more than 20% of Yemenis belong to a tribe that has armed capabilities, according to al-Iryani:
“Yemen is viewed as highly tribal, which is actually a misrepresentation. I define tribal as being those whose primary identification is tribal, i.e. if the sheikh calls them to war, they come to his aid. And that applies to about 20 per cent of the population. The other 80 per cent are either urban or peasants, and they are non-tribal. So the over-exaggeration of the tribal nature of Yemen is misplaced…I do not think Yemen is as tribal as the regime tries to present it to the world, or as foreign observers sometimes suggest.”
In fact, in Yemen in the last decade much of the talk has been on the relative decline of the tribal element in Yemeni politics, rather than its ascendance. The recent battle in Hasaba district of the capital at the end of May 2011 between the Ali Abdullah Salih government and the leaders of the Hashid tribal confederation seemed to confirm the growing limits to tribal power in modern Yemen. When the clashes began in Hasaba and Sadiq al-Ahmar, the leader of the Hashid tribal confederation, called on his tribes to come to his defense in Sana`a, those that view the tribes as the key to power in Yemen predicted that Salih’s rule was finished. In their view, Salih had broken the alliance with his key tribal backers and had in fact turned on them, attacking the most powerful tribal confederation in Yemen and now they were being called to arms by their leader. People conjured images of the famous sacking of Sana`a in 1948 after forces loyal to Imam Yahya regained control, or the sacking of Aden after the war in 1994.
Yet what those who tend to overestimate tribal power in Yemen forget is that just as often in Yemeni history the powerful tribes are shown to not be so powerful. In the famous siege of 1967-1968, the royalist tribes surrounding Sana`a were unable to penetrate the city’s defenses. In August 2011, when Sadiq al-Ahmar called upon the tribes to come to his defense in Sana`a, they were stopped outside the city by forces loyal to Salih. Hashid and Bakil are the famous “wings” of the imam, the powers that guard Yemen’s state, but their role is as much one of legend as reality.
Tribal power is not only overestimated by Westerners, but perhaps a more damaging problem is that tribes are misconstrued by many Westerners leading to a misleading picture of tribes and tribalism in Yemeni state and society. Some analysts have argued that what lies beyond the city limits is tribal territory beyond the reach of the Yemeni state. This is a simplistic view of tribes and their relationship to the state in Yemen, but unfortunately a common one perhaps inspired by the historical legacy of fascination with the Western experience in the United States as lawless territory. Many people seem to imagine that Yemen’s territory is divided into a mosaic of tribal territories and that the state controls the city limits at best, and even then in a rudimentary form only. In this reified view of tribal society, a map could be made delineating the extent of each tribal territory and its leaders could be listed in a database spatially correlated to tribal territories. Dealing with Yemeni society in this case would be easy, one would just figure out who controlled the territory and who was in charge of that particular tribe and then proceed to negotiate with the proper tribal authorities. Such a neat and trim picture of tribal society is an illusory, but powerfully attractive framework to outsiders.
The British had a similar vision of tribal entities on the Arabian Peninsula and this view became the basis of their policies in South Arabia as well as in the Arabian Gulf. Not only does this vision of tribal politics distort the nature of tribal territoriality and tribal politics, forcing the square of tribal social organization and territoriality into the round mold of the nation-state, but it also violently altered local politics. The British became local “tribe makers” and “shaykh makers” by giving official recognition to some tribes and leadership sections within particular tribes, but not others. Ironically, the British saw themselves as preservers of local tradition rather than agents of powerful social change. The current attempts at dividing Yemen’s territory into distinct “tribal” areas by Westerners are simply another iteration of a similarly misguided exercise at reading local society.
The idea that the state’s power ends at the city limits is a myth at best, sometimes propagated by tribes themselves. Drawing such a clear geographic delimitation between tribe and state is a gross misrepresentation of the myriad of complex relationships between the state and local tribes. In his recent book, Isa Blumi considers the confusion about the concept of tribe such that he proposes abandoning the term tribe altogether. He is not alone. Marta Mundy similarly suggested that the concept of tribe be abandoned and that one should speak of local communities, a term adopted by Blumi as well. Clearly, some clarification is needed.
The first factor that contributes to this confusion is that Yemeni society is very diverse and local social organizations, such as the tribe, vary in their characteristics across Yemen’s geography. Most are familiar with the generalization that tribes in the region around Sana`a and further north to Sa`da are powerful military and political units whereas tribes in the middle, southern, coastal, and in the east in Hadramawt are much less focused on their martial capabilities and more on internal social issues. Yet within this general distribution of tribal characteristics there is still great variation. The three most prominent studies in English on tribes are all about tribes in the north, yet they come to different conclusions about the nature of tribes and in particular the relationship between the tribe and the state.
In Shelagh Weir’s masterful ethnography of tribes in the Haraz region west of Sa`da, tribes are “small sovereignties,” whose leadership jealously guards their local autonomy from the state. Weir sees tribes a refuge from the abuses of the state. Many share the idea that when the state is unable to provide local services, tribal tradition emerges to fill the gap. The view that the border between the state and the tribe is mutually exclusive and tribes take up the slack where states are incapable is common in both the literature in English and in Arabic. The greater the power of the state, the weaker the tribes; as state power decays, tribes reconstitute themselves to provide social order where the state cannot.
This view that tribes are local sovereignties does capture an important aspect of tribes. Tribes are geographically limited social organizations whose interests are primarily focused on their own local territories. Tribes as local social organizations are primarily concerned about the relative balance of power in their local geography. Their immediate neighbors are their competitors and tribes are interested in maintaining their power relative to their neighbors. As such, tribes will invite a political party, for example, to back them because a rival political party has supported the tribe opposite them. The tribe’s invitation to a political party is not ideological at all. The members of the tribe do not adhere to the perspective or ideas of the party; rather, they are interested in the resources that the party offers. Tribes are primarily locally interested and their behavior is most strongly shaped by their calculations of the local balance of power.
One result of the local focus of tribes is the continually fractured nature of tribal politics. Tribes are difficult to unite because their interests are local, not national or even regional. When the al-Ahmar brothers defected from Salih’s regime after the March 18, 2011 massacre of protestors in Sana`a, for example, they boldly declared that the powerful tribal confederation of Hashid and Bakil had joined the protestors in Change Square. Observers familiar with tribes in Yemen, however, would be suspicious of such claims. The al-Ahmar brothers are indeed traditional leaders of the Hashid tribal confederation, the most coherent and strongest of any tribal confederation in Yemen, but tribes are not civil society organizations. They do not follow the directives of their leaders; they consider the directive a strong suggestion, but a suggested course of action only. Of course, many tribes within the Hashid confederation took the opportunity of the al-Ahmar’s declaration of loyalty to the protestors to gain local leverage by siding with Ali Abdullah Salih instead of the al-Ahmars. The second most powerful tribe within the Hashid confederation sided with Salih, not al-Ahmar. This is logical from a tribal standpoint; tribes as local geographic units of society are primarily interested in their local interests.
Contingent Borders and Loyalties
The immediate difficulty with this view of tribes as local sovereignties, however, is that the borders between tribes are often difficult to discern; the units of tribes are not readily distinguishable on the ground. Where one tribe begins and another ends is not always clear. Tribes themselves will cite their traditions, saying that their tribes come from ancient roots. Indeed, there are very old roots to some Yemeni tribes. The famous Yemeni historian of the 10th century, Hamdani, chronicles some tribes that still exist today in the same regions. Yet tribes are often created hastily as well. At one level, a tribe is just a bunch of people who have decided to follow a particular leader at some particular point in time. Tribal tradition says that tribes are blood relations, that members of a tribe are descendants of a common ancestor. The kin relation is fictive, though. A particular member of a tribe can switch allegiances if his request for backing from his new tribe is accepted.
Adherence to a tribe is not automatic; it is not a matter of blood. Tribesmen do not follow their leaders simply because tradition tells them to. Allegiance and loyalty is contingent upon the calculations of each individual member in each particular circumstance. On a particular issue, some tribesmen may agree with the stance of their shaykhs, and in another they will differ. The tribe’s backing of a particular individual member of the tribe will depend upon circumstances and the calculations of each individual tribesman in each particular instance. Tribes are not like military units with a commander and soldiers that follow orders. The relationship between the tribesman, his fellow tribesmen, and the tribal leadership is much more contingent and consensual than is often portrayed. Tribesmen are not the foot soldiers of an ethnic army led by the local shaykh.
Furthermore, the distinction between what is a tribe and what is not a tribe is even more difficult to discern. The most distinguishing characteristic of the tribe, perhaps, is their system of justice. It is the “tribal order,” as the title of Weir’s book implies, that distinguishes the tribe, and the tribal system of mediated justice is a well studied aspect of tribes. As has been pointed out, however, every Yemeni village or city neighborhood will have a group of elders who will administer local affairs, including justice. Local politics are built around family ties in Yemen, whether in tribal regions or simply in the village or town. The Yemeni state is incapable of providing for local order, so powerful clans provide order. This order, however, is not the order of a uniform code with a police force; rather, order in the village or in the tribe is provided by the mediation of powerful leaders. Disputants bring their claims to elders or shaykhs who contact the opposing side in a tradition of mediation between opposing power blocs. The threat of revenge and the fear of chaos, or the desire to preserve some sense of order, brings the disputants to the home of a powerful leader to request arbitration and settlement. This is a large part of tribal tradition, but it is in some sense indistinguishable from the mediation of local clans or elders in a village. This may be why the estimates of the proportion of Yemenis that live in tribes vary so greatly. Some say that only about 20% of Yemenis live in tribal societies, whereas others claim that 80% of Yemenis live in tribal societies.
More critically, the border between the state and the tribes is more difficult to discern than is often perceived. The view that tribes take up the slack where the state cannot reach or even resists the state’s encroachments, as is seen in Weir’s detailed history, captures only part of the relationship between the state and tribal organizations. Muhammed al-Thahiri describes three general relationships between the state and the tribe: alliance, hostility, and mutual tolerance. Contrary to the view that state power ends at the city limits, the state actually rules through the tribes by cultivating alliances with particular tribes and their leaders. These alliances are always predicated on local knowledge of tribal politics that allow the state maximum advantage in local circumstances. The state’s alliances with particular tribes automatically imply that the state will be in opposition to other tribes. The state allows some tribes to live as they wish in a relationship of mutual distance.
Therefore, tribal politics are the politics of the state. Salih is a master of local politics in Yemen, and this is one of the reasons he has held onto power for so long.
State as Arbitrator
Al-Thahiri proposed an alternative view of the Yemeni state that he derived from his reading of Ibn Khaldun’s famous Muqadama. Ibn Khaldun described the power of social cohesion in rural areas and the degrading effect of these ties in urban areas. As a result, empires are continually renewed by rural revolts that sweep away established powers in the cities and establish new empires. In the Yemeni case, al-Thahiri proposed that the tribal power that captures the state is not always able to completely establish the state’s power and overcome rural resistance. The Yemeni case is an example of a partial conquest of the state by rural tribes, in the view of al-Thahiri. The state in this case is unable to overcome the power of tribes and as such it mediates between tribes rather than conquering them. Al-Thahiri calls this the “arbitration state.” Rather than rule directly, the state rules by arbitrating among local and regional powers.
Certainly, many observers have noted that the Yemeni state is often seen as “the big tribe” by Yemeni tribes in the sense that they relate to the state as they would a tribe. People describe how tribesmen will slaughter bulls before a government agency or before parliament in an attempt to obligate the concerned state parties into addressing the tribesmen’s affairs. The state itself will often relate to tribesmen or tribal leaders using the language of the tribe. Ali Abdullah Salih is a master of this discourse. Conflicts between the state and tribes are resolved through the medium of mediation using tribal language, as if the state were a tribal party to the conflict. In this sense, the Yemeni regime is served by the continuance of tribal relations; rather than the state and the tribe being mutually opposed, here the state has an interest in furthering tribal social organization.
The State Creating Tribes
In fact, in some cases the state actually creates tribes. After the war in 1994, the Salih regime attempted to rebuild tribal social organization in southern Yemen as a means of extending its control into the territories of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP). The YSP had effectively destroyed tribal customs, and Salih’s regime saw an opportunity to build new political institutions in the south on a basis that the Salih regime understood and could control. For a period after the war, there was proliferation of shaykhs in the south as people vied to become leaders of the newly tribalized south Yemen. The Salih regime compiled long lists of state-recognized shaykhs and their tribes, just as the British had done earlier. In this case, instead of the tribe replacing the state where the state is incapable, the state is creating the tribe to extend its influence and enhance its capabilities.
The Tribes Creating the State
Just as the boundaries of the state extend deep into tribal relations, tribal power also extends into the state. The Yemeni parliament has always been composed of a disproportionate number of tribal shaykhs, and tribal leaders command the heights of the military and security apparatus. Tribal leaders are also leaders of what are considered modern civil society organizations such as political parties. Tribal leaders are sometimes big business leaders as well, such as Hamid al-Ahmar who is possibly one of the wealthiest men in Yemen. Some Yemeni academics argue that tribal leaders saw the development of institutions and organizations of civil society under the liberalized unity government in 1990 as a threat to their power. In the former north Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic, political parties had been banned because they were seen as contrary to traditional Yemeni values. When the new Republic of Yemen was created under the guise of liberal democracy, tribal leaders feared that civil society organizations would replace the role of tribal leaders as mediators between state power and individual citizens/tribesmen. As a result, tribal leaders attempted to occupy and co-opt civil society organizations to maintain the dominance of tribal leaders and ideas of tribal ethics and tribal institutions in Yemeni culture.
Civil society organizations can extend into tribal politics as well. The fighting in al-Jawf is between tribes supporting the political party Islah and tribes supporting Abdul Malik al-Huthi. Tribes have lined upon on either side of the conflict between Ali Abdullah Salih and the Yemeni opposition, and tribes have sided with the protestors in Change Square and against them.
Tribes and Social Change
Furthermore, “tribes” vary not only geographically but temporally as well. Tribes are not immune to social change. As much as people can cling to tradition in their conservative impulse to preserve time honored custom against the uncertainties of social change, what is seen as tradition is always interpreted and lived in the present. As such, “traditional values” may in fact be the purveyors of major social change. Paul Dresch, Shelagh Weir, and Steven Caton all point to the possibility of social change occurring in Yemen that will alter the nature of tribal social organization. There are strong signs that education and economic opportunities are changing tribes. Certainly the presence of tribesmen in doctorate programs in foreign universities and atop social institutions such as chambers of commerce and political parties, as well as non-profit organizations, indicates that changes are afoot.
Perhaps the biggest sign of change underway is the large tribal presence in Yemen’s Change Square. Tribesmen as individuals left their homes and abandoned their weapons against the wishes of their shaykhs in many cases to join the protestors in Change Square. Equally disgruntled tribesmen joined the ranks of the rebellion led by Abdul Malik al-Huthi against the wishes of their tribal leaders. In Yemen, people speak of the “city shaykh” who has moved to Sana`a to occupy political or administrative positions in the state or has become rich in commerce, and who has lost touch with conditions among the tribesmen. Many tribesmen in rural areas are as disgruntled with the economy and politics in Yemen as those in Change Square. New transportation and communication technology as well as educational opportunities have opened a wider world onto rural Yemen giving people greater opportunities than in the past. Change is occurring among tribes and in rural Yemen as much as in the modern cities.
Tribe and tribalism have very different meanings since their manifestations vary in different parts of Yemen and because these words refer to quite different phenomena as well. The meaning of tribe is also changing in modern circumstances. A tribe can refer to a local social organization in a particular place in Yemen, and these local organizations can differ tremendously depending upon geography. For example, the tribes close to Sana`a are critical players in Yemeni national politics whereas the tribes of the eastern desert are isolated groups that have little influence on Yemeni politics in the capital. Most Yemeni tribes are sedentary and traditionally agriculturalists whereas some of the eastern tribes are more mobile and based upon the management of livestock. Other tribes in the Hadramawt region are like community associations that manage the affairs of local merchants. These tribal groupings, limited in their geographic reach, are profoundly local in their interests and behavior. The behavior of tribes is often best understood by first looking to these local calculations of the balance of power in local settings.
Another meaning of tribe is tribal social organization as a distinctive system of justice and maintenance of order and security through the institution of the powerful mediator, the tribal shaykh. This institution depends upon the martial capabilities of individual tribesmen, their ability to present a credible threat of retribution for injustices that can then be mediated and settled through the negotiations of elders and tribal leaders. This is part of what Weir refers to as the tribal order and is intimately related to the concept of tribal urf.
Tribalism can also mean an ethic, a set of values that are understood as distinctly Yemeni, and that are supportive of certain national political agendas. In this sense, Dresch and Bernard Haykel can say that tribalism as a social organization in Sanhan, the tribe of President Salih, is dead, at the same time people speak of the power of Sanhan in the Yemeni state. Sanhani tribesmen occupy the pinnacles of power in the security and military apparatus, but tribal social organization within Sanhan is non-existent. Positions of power are delegated to Sanhani tribesmen, but the institutions of the local tribe are no longer relevant (and many Sanhanis have been left to poverty in the shuffle as well). Tribalism here is a relationship of trust used to dominate a national state that is very dangerous to rule—past Yemeni leaders were either killed or exiled.
In the literature on Yemen, tribe is used in different ways such that the word has almost no meaning. To better grasp developments in Yemen, tribe needs to be more precisely specified and the different meanings need to be differentiated. Clearly, there is a difference between the tribes that Weir calls “small sovereignties” that are resistant to the encroachment of state officials and the dominant role that the al-Ahmar brothers play at the pinnacle of Yemeni politics from within the state, yet both are referred to as “tribes.” Both are accurate and represent significant aspects of Yemeni society as well.
If one is to understand Yemeni society and politics and the changes they are undergoing, it is essential to be far more specific in the use of the word “tribe” when writing about Yemen.
Charles Schmitz is a professor of Geography at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland. He is currently president of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies and a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
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