Role of State in a Traditional Society [Archives:1998/15/Focus]

April 13 1998

By: Dr. Abdul-Kareem Al-Iryani,
Minister of Foreign Affairs
The role of the state is a dynamic process. It is directly linked to social traditions, economic changes and technological innovations. To take the history of Europe as an example, the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution brought about radical changes in the role of the state. Before that, the role of the state was essentially simple, whether it was a city state or an empire.

By the end of World War I, the role of the state began to take on what might be called an international character. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, and Imperial China and Japan were trying to adjust to the new role of the state which originated in 19th century Europe.

After World War I, the Russian revolution created a new role for the state under the ideological thesis of scientific socialism, democratic centralism and centrally planned economies. This was in sharp contrast to democratic liberalism, freedom of the press, free and fair elections and a free market economic system. The great struggle between these two roles began in earnest after World War II and lasted from 1950 to 1991 when the great failure predicted by Zbigniew Brzezniski (in his book The Grand Failure: The Birth and Death of Communism in the 20th Century) occurred earlier than he had predicted. The USSR began to disintegrate in 1992.

It is worth noting that most of the states in the so-called Third World which emerged during the 1950s and 1970s, had adopted the Russian style in various degrees, particularly the one-party system and centrally planned economy.
In today’s world, the role of the state is steadily becoming almost universal. The socio-economic goals are dominated by liberalization, privatization, globalization and freely floating national currencies. The political role of the state is now dominated by democratization, free and fair elections, good governance and the protection of human rights.
So the universal role of the state at the advent of the 21st century can be summarized as follows:
1. Fostering the rule of law and individual as well as collective security of its citizens.
2. Maintaining an independent judiciary.
3. Adopting a stable economic policy, freeing the economy from distortions and combating corruption.
4. Enhancing democracy or democratization and popular participation in free and fair elections.
5. Judicious use of national wealth with special attention to disadvantaged groups in society.
6. Directing state resources to investment in social services (health, education and welfare) and infrastructure projects.
7. Protection of the environment.
8. Protection of human rights.
Of course, we all know that these functions will not be applied in a vacuum nor are they applied with the same yardstick in all our societies. The nature of the society, its heritage, demographic constitution, level of economic development and prevalence of state institutions all greatly affect the role of the state, assuming that such a state wishes to adhere to the above principles.
Now let us look at the most important aspects of Yemeni society which make up the milieu in which economic, social and political developments take place.

First, we can all agree that Yemen has a traditional society. We may not agree on the aspects of traditionalism and their relative impact on economic and political developments.
In my view, the most important aspects of Yemeni society are:
1. Legacies
2. Statehood
3. Settlement
4. Religious values
5. Tribalism
6. Demographic homogeneity
7. Minimal social stratification and general social mobility.
These aspects all effect development. Let me dwell on each characteristic, as follows:
1. Legacies:
The legacy of Yemen’s ancient civilization has its influence in Yemeni society even today. The earliest records of Yemeni civilization date back to the second millennium B.C. Meanwhile, extensive records of prehistoric human activities are being discovered at several historic sites. These records may prove that ancient Yemeni civilization represents a continuum of human existence of the same ethnic origin until today. It is now well established that Yemeni civilization flourished in parallel with those of the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia. However, the advent of Islam in Yemen did not lead to lingual and cultural substitution as it did in the Nile Valley and Mesopotamia. Therefore traditional continuity is a hallmark of Yemeni society.

2. Nationhood:
This aspect of Yemeni tradition is very important in maintaining Yemeni territorial integrity during the weakness of central authority. The traditional feeling of nationhood or statehood has protected Yemen from disintegration during periods of internal conflict. One hundred and thirty years of British colonialism did not lead to diversion among Yemeni social and tribal links or to the evolution of two distinct states. The institution of statehood is deeply rooted in Yemeni history. Pre-Islamic states of Saba, Qataban, Hadhramaut and Himyar created a deep-rooted tradition of statehood. Yemen was the first country to regain its statehood during the early Abbasyd period of Islamic caliphs who ruled the entire Islamic world, except Andalusia.

3. Sedentary Population:
The settled nature of Yemeni society plays an important role in all aspects of Yemeni development. Unlike the situation which existed in Northern Arabia or even in the neighboring African states, Yemenis are neither nomadic nor pastoral. Ninety percent of the population live in permanent dwellings and the majority are still subsistence farmers.

4. Religious Values:
Like most developing Muslim societies, religious values are extremely important in the state’s efforts toward modernization. The impact of religious values is most stark regarding the role of women. The woman’s share in education, employment and public life is one of the lowest in the world.

5. Tribalism:
Tribalism in Yemen is as old as Yemeni civilization. It is, in fact, an institution with its rules and regulations. Tribes are divided on a genealogical basis. Yemen’s modern history has been dominated by the activity of northern tribes, whether during resistance to the Ottoman rule or the war between the Republicans and the Royalists. However, it is my view that tribalism is a rural institution. It is being weakened by education, modernization and urbanization.

6. Demographic Homogeneity:
Yemeni society, ancient as it is, is demographically homogeneous. There are no ethnic divisions. In fact, the people in Yemen are claimed to be descendants of Qahtan, while people of north Arabia are claimed to be descendants of Adnan. Uncertain as these divisions may be, demographic homogeneity remains a notable fact of Yemeni society.

7. Minimal Stratification and High Social Mobility:
Many ancient societies are characterized by a high degree of stratification (India is the strongest example). It is my view that despite its long history of human settlement that dates back to at least the Bronze Age, the Yemeni society did not evolve the institution of social stratification. One can say that tribalism is the antithesis of social stratification.
Similarly, Yemeni society is characterized by unimpeded social mobility compared with ancient Asian societies. Perhaps, the dominant role of trade and migration in Yemen’s history is the reason for this phenomenon.
I shall summarize very briefly my own assessment of the impact of the traditional aspects of Yemeni society on economic and political development. Traditional as it is, Yemeni society is characterized by openness, i.e., it is an extroverted society, if that is the right phrase. I think the mercantile heritage and migration have fostered this character. Therefore, modern development and modern means of production are readily accepted and quickly learned and adopted. I hope that those of you who have dealt with rural development in Yemen would agree.
Nevertheless, one can’t easily dismiss the constraints that these traditional aspects put on economic development. It is clear that religious values and tribalism have affected the role of women. Women are the most deprived group in our society. However, my general conclusion is that traditionalism has not really been a serious barrier to economic development.
Now, let me go to the second topic of this important symposium, namely democracy. Yemen is a country committed to democracy and is undergoing a democratization process, i.e. it is a nascent democracy. This commitment to democracy was a very important catalyst in realizing Yemen’s unity. It was also a unifying factor in fighting the secessionist effort of 1994.

Despite Yemen’s commitment to democracy, Yemen, like all emerging democratic states, is faced with real challenges that must be overcome in order to become a fully fledged constitutional democracy. These challenges are :
1. A low standard of living. The per capita income of less than US $400.
2. A weak economic system. This is now undergoing a radical restructuring.
3. Weak constitutionality. Education is going to be an important factor in this regard.
4. The conflict between traditional and modern legal systems. A modern legal system is a prerequisite for the evolution of a civil society.
5. Weak parliamentary traditions. Parliament has not yet established its own traditions of being a regulatory and inspecting institution. This role is still very weak.
6. Lack of continued voter interest. This is especially visible following an enthusiastic participation in voting.
7. Lack of participatory tradition in public life. One can see this from the weak interest in protection of shared (public) property.
8. Sparse existence of state institutions relative to the size of the population. Yemen has one of the lowest numbers of law enforcement officers and supporting judiciary in the world. In a dictatorial regime, these institutions are a means of oppression. However, in an emerging democracy, they are needed for fostering human rights and creating a civil society.
With regard to constraints that may be imposed by various aspects of Yemeni traditions on democratization, I may surprise you by claiming that at this stage of democratic development, these traditional aspects have not constrained either men’s or women’s participation during elections. However, there are only two women in the 301 members of parliament. But, such a result is not unique to traditional societies. We all know the limited role of women in European democracies up until the fourth quarter of this century.
My final comment about the above listed challenges to Yemen’s democratization is that we all know that this is an evolutionary process. The most important factor is continuity of commitment to democratization. An emerging democracy may be plagued with many shortcomings, it may not be fully free and fair and it may even be corrupt. However, democracy is endowed with a self-repair system.
We must admit that several democratization processes were abolished in the Arab World under the pretext of corrupt practices. Some have come back and some are still absent.
To cite an example, I asked a Jordanian friend in 1989 how the parliamentary elections were going after more than 20 years of absence. He expressed surprise that the candidates didn’t seem to change any of their improper campaign practices. They are doing the same as they did before. My comment is that this proves that only continuity will correct these shortcomings.
* The above lecture was the opening speech at the conference on “Yemen: The Challenge of Social, Economic and Democratic Development” organized by the Center for Arab Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, Exeter, UK, during 1-4 April, 1998.