Tribalism in Yemen has changed deeply April 06, 2012 02:08 AM By
> Elham Manea
The Daily Star
February's presidential election in Yemen by no means marks the end of the
country's troubles. However, the suggestion that the United States host a
new arrangement based on decentralized negotiation between tribal and
regional leaders is not the way to solve them.
Such a call ignores lessons from Yemen's past and underestimates the deep
changes that have taken place in Yemeni society over the last decades.
Although the tribal system continues to operate as the prevalent mode of
social organization, it is crucial to recognize that the nature of tribal
networks and institutions has changed drastically.
Historically, tribal networks compensated for the state's lack of capacity.
The tribe assumed the role of protector and provider: securing tribal
territory, protecting water wells, and resolving conflicts between its
members or with other tribes. In many ways, the tribe was the institution of
first resort for financial backing and social support in times of crisis. It
is perhaps very telling that Aden - where the nuclear family has displaced
the tribe as the main social unit - is more affected by poverty than regions
that have preserved tribalism, such as Shabwah, Mahra and Al-Dali.
Tribal sheikhs were also once accountable to their constituents: They were
elected and could be voted out. Thus, a sheikh was often regarded as a first
among equals, rather than an absolute ruler. Custom (Irf) governed the
mediation of conflict within or outside the tribe and could not be violated
without loss of honor - a distinct disgrace - and threat of severe penalty.
However, the calculated politics of patronage applied by the former Yemeni
president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, changed the nature of the relationship
between tribal leaders and their constituencies. Saleh and the sheikhs had a
number of incentives to engage in a new relationship. From the regime's
perspective, offering assistance to warring or otherwise weakened tribes
undercut potentially strong alliances against it, and by incorporating
tribal forms of arbitration, the regime also depleted tribal resources that
could be used in opposition to the state. On the other side of the bargain,
this patronage system afforded sheikhs freedom from accountability to their
By successfully co-opting these leaders and rendering them dependent on
Sanaa for privileges and largesse, Saleh's patronage system eroded tribal
codes and norms - ultimately leading to a leadership vacuum. Many sheikhs
today are dramatically wealthier than their fellow tribesmen - and thus no
longer dependent on their constituencies. More tribesmen are alienated from
their leaders - who often take up residence in Sanaa and are only just
beginning to abuse their power.
The most famous example is the case of the Jaashin area in Ibb, where the
sheikh there evicted dozens of families in 2009 after they refused to pay
"taxes" - they instead insisted on paying the municipalities directly.
Additionally, there are reports of "private" prisons run by sheikhs who use
them to intimidate and terrorize their own tribesmen - enough to cause
Yemen's Human Rights Minister Huriyya Mashhour to pledge to shut them down.
Saleh understood this reality belatedly. He mistakenly thought that securing
the allegiance of sheikhs would ensure their tribes' loyalties. But as was
revealed in the uprisings that led to his removal from office, many tribe
members did not follow the orders of their "leaders." In this context, it is
difficult to imagine how the United States would host a new arrangement
based on decentralized negotiation with leaders who can no longer deliver.
Perhaps we should look to the Sultanate of Oman as a source of inspiration -
particularly to its strategy used to integrate the region's tribes and end
the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1970s. Oman managed to overcome Dhofar's
isolation by connecting it to Muscat while simultaneously instilling a sense
of national identity in its population through three major initiatives.
First, the government pardoned all the Dhofari fighters who were willing to
switch sides: Those who accepted amnesty were retrained and incorporated
into the armed forces. As a result, hundreds of Dhofari rebels deserted and
joined Sultan Qaboos' "Firqat" Irregulars. These squads ranged in size from
30 to 100 men, the majority of which were defected rebels and local
tribesmen trained to operate as a paramilitary force.
Not only did this strategy help secure the support of the tribes from which
members of the Firqat were drawn, but it also built up the squads as
provisional regional governments, which may have helped rebuild trust in the
central government. At the very least, this was a clear departure from
previous policies of dispatching regular forces composed mostly of Pakistani
The tribal factor was also especially important in Oman's efforts to create
an administrative network in the region and to ensure the allegiance of both
tribal leaders and local people. Like the rest of the country at the time,
Dhofar lacked a basic civil service. Starting in 1974, the new sultan set up
several ministries to run Dhofar's public affairs. And although the heads of
these ministries lived in Muscat, local branches were set up for each, and
their representatives were usually elected - rather than appointed - tribal
By addressing the economic and social demands and grievances of the
population of Dhofar, the state aimed to undermine the very basis of the
rebels' cause. Between 1971 and 1975 the Omani government used generous
funding from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to allocate 25
percent of the nation's development budget to Dhofar alone and provide for
the construction of local roads, airports, schools, clinics, and power
stations. While promising to make the province economically self-sufficient
by 1980, the overarching objective of the program was, however, to instill
"pride in the community and a spirit of nation-building." These efforts both
appeased the Dhofari population and strengthened the connection between the
center and the periphery.
All of this would not have been possible had the state been absent from the
equation. The state is very much key to any attempt to solve Yemen's
problems, and hitherto has been hampered by weakness and corruption stemming
from the rule of a single clan - one more interested in filling its coffers
than addressing the needs of its population. But for this, we should not
blame the state: Blame instead the leaders - and get to work.
Elham Manea is an associate professor at Zurich University's Institute of
Political Science. She specializes in Yemeni affairs and is the author of
"Regional Politics in the Gulf" and "The Arab State and Women's Rights: The
Trap of Authoritarian Governance." This commentary first appeared at Sada,
an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb
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Received on Fri Apr 06 2012 - 10:15:47 EDT