Sheikhdoms in Yemen (Part I) [Archives:2001/09/Reportage]

February 26 2001

Taiz Bureau Staff 
Yemen Times 
“Sheikdom” and “sheik”- the two words used to describe patriarchs of tribes, are considered the most prestigious traditional titles in Yemen. Sheikhs are the leaders of sheikhdoms. They are opinion makers with a significant role in the political, economic, cultural and even military affairs of the country. Most of the time, they are a major cause of instability or chaos in Yemen. They are an authority close to the center, and are of great political and military power and influence. They are simply, a state within a state. 
The emergence of Sheikhdoms in Yemen 
Sheikhdoms first emerged in Yemen before the revolution in the former North Yemen. The Imam was quite aware of the power and influence of sheikhdoms so he was able to limit their power by taking one of the sons or close relatives of every Yemeni sheik as hostage. 
After the revolution, sheikhdoms in Yemen maintained their influence which was further borne out by the fact that law enforcement was non-existent in many regions. Sheikhs became a source of inspiration for tribesmen and villagers in vast areas in the north and east of the country. No doubt, the weakness of state authority reflected itself in the strength of sheikhdoms in Yemen. 
Levels and types of Sheikhdoms 
There are mainly two levels of sheikhdoms. The first is the more influential and powerful of the two, and is normally called the ‘sheikhdoms of above’ having strong links with the leadership and controlling vast areas of villages and well-armed tribesmen. The lower level is the weaker and is called the ‘sheikhdoms of below’. It has less military strength and is away from the authorities, but still has significant influence in their respective areas. 
There are also two types of sheikhdoms within the two levels. These are village sheikhdoms and tribal sheikhdoms. The village sheikhdoms usually have little power and limited influence and modest authority over their villages and have more extensive knowledge about various issues related to religion and culture. Tribal sheikhdoms are the ones that control a number of tribesmen. They have a strong influence on tribal issues and weak influence on the political level and have more knowledge in tribal issues. In most cases, the tribal sheikhdoms belong to the ‘sheikhdoms of above’ while the village sheikhdoms are the ones belonging to the ‘sheikhdoms of below’ even though this is not a rule of thumb. 
Role of Sheikhdoms in Society 
Sheikhs are usually the mouthpiece of their people, either tribesmen or villagers. They play the role of a leader who safeguards their rights and who demands that the authorities provide them with the best of services. Sheikhdoms have their own rules and regulations. They have their own territories, traditions, and values. Within their own communities, sheikhdoms try to establish a balance among their people and maintain peace. However, according to their interests, they also have objectives of playing a role in the region by either working on establishing peace and harmony in the political picture, or the opposite. 
Their Relations with the Political System 
Throughout the years before the revolution, sheikhdoms played a great role in combating injustice and dictatorship. They have struggled on many fronts and in many regions, in the south and in the north, against all sorts of oppression. However, just as the revolution took place in the north, they started to deviate from their main goal and took different paths. Some supported the regime, some came up against it. Some were involved in political life, some were not. However, it is well known that sheikhdoms of many areas, including Sanhan, have strong and vital relationships with the leadership. 
Relationships among Sheikhdoms 
The cooperation and coordination of Sheikhdoms with each other either on the village or the tribal levels has always been an example of harmony and peace over the years. Sheikhdoms tend to solve the problems arising out of conflicts due to radicalism and ignorance. There are even times when they formed coalitions and alliances among themselves so as to eliminate any future conflicts and problems. Apart from that, there are some sheikhdoms that hold regular conferences and sessions. Despite the fact that most of these conferences take place in open areas, they are still a symbol of organization. 
Authority, internal disputes, and properties 
Usually, sheikdom in Yemen is based on inheritance. Transfer of power of sheikhdoms usually takes place peacefully from father to son. Due to the tribal nature of sheikhdoms in Yemen, the sheik is the person whom groups in dispute go to for a final and decisive ruling. The two parties usually pay tremendous amounts of money and goods to the sheik to express their trust in and allegiance to him. Eventually, the sheik gives his ruling in conformity with the principles on justice and both sides accept the final verdict. As for the goods and assets given to the sheik, they are kept as his personal property. This is why sheikhs usually are the richest among all members of the sheikhdoms and have become a symbol of wealth. 
How to become a Sheik 
In all cases where there is a mature and grown up son of the sheik, the transfer of power takes place from the father to the son. However, the fact that not every sheik has children made sheikhdoms develop new rules to cope with such situations. In these situations the sheikhs delegates power to someone he thinks fit for the position from among his relatives or other members of the tribe. 
However, after unification of the North and South Yemen in 1990, more conditions had to be met by any candidate to become a sheik, such as the approval and admittance of the state. It is thought that the objective of the government in this regard is to have the sheikhs on its side. In any case, the admittance to the state is likely to give the sheik more influence and power. 
Sheikhdoms and the state 
Without doubt, the current regime is in favor of sheikhdoms. There has been a vicious conflict of ideas and principles between sheikhdoms and the former leftists, namely the nationalists and socialists, as they see sheikhdoms as symbols of ignorance and backwardness. This symbolizes an intellectual and cultural point of view. Yemen has witnessed great confrontations between Sheikhdoms and these leftist powers. In the 60s and early 70s there were massacres and wars waged against sheikhdoms in the former North and South Yemen. However, all these ended after the regime changed from nationalist to capitalist in the north and after unification in the south. 
Colonial Rule in the Former South and Sheikhdoms 
Sheikhdoms were feared most by the colonial authorities of the former south Yemen. The colonial rulers realized how influential and hardlined sheikhdoms were, regarding national and tribal values. They understood that the loyalty of villagers and the public to sheikhdoms was a major threat to them. Sheikhdoms were able to gather the people to be involved in any confrontation, no matter how risky, and were able to control their action in all aspects. The colonialists tried to arrest a number of sheikhs but most of their efforts were in vain. It was only in 1963 that sheikhdoms witnessed the start of the independence struggle in the south, when Sheik Labbuddha called for confrontation from the mountains of Radfan against the colonial forces. 
Imamate in the Former North and Sheikhdoms 
In Former North Yemen some sheikhdoms started a conflict with the Imam who ruled the country years before the revolution in 1962. Among those sheikhs that died in fighting for independence were Sheikh Hussein Al-Ahmar and his son Hameed. The war between the Imam and sheikhdoms intensified further and eventually helped in sparking the first flame of the revolution in 1962. They also played a major role in fighting for independence in the former north as well as in the former south. 
Sheikhdoms and the Interior Front 
When the sheikhdoms power and oppression reached levels higher than bearable in some areas, the interior front was established to combat the sheikhdoms by spreading negative ideas about them in their own communities. 
Sheikhdoms and the State of Law and Order 
One of the main obstacles in front of forming the true modern state in Yemen has always been the presence of sheikhdoms. The main reason for that is that sheikhdoms see themselves as far from being controlled by the state or its laws and regulations, especially in their own territories. 
The tribal values posed a major challenge for the modern state. The tribal traditions and armed members of sheikhdoms also limited the government’s presence in these areas. As a result education and general civil services were neglected in these areas. 
Partisanship and Sheikhdoms 
When partisanship started to flourish after unification, many political parties started approaching sheikhdoms for their support. The ruling party, PGC was able to gain the support of most of the sheikhdoms in Yemen. Only recently has the Islah Party been able to gain more publicity and support within the sheikdom community. However, recent reports state that sheikhdoms have started deviating from the political alliances due to the deteriorating security and economic conditions within their regions. 
Efforts for Diminishing dominance of Sheikhdoms 
All efforts to diminish dominance of sheikhdoms since the revolution until now have failed due to the fact that sheikhdoms have popular support of the tribesmen and villagers, because of their already established influence in the state and the military forces they usually possess. Their presence has somewhat been helpful in maintaining stability and peace within tribal communities because -as explained before- they serve as mediators in setting conflicts and tribal disputes and wars. 
Future of Sheikhdoms 
The relationship between tribalism, sheikhdoms, and weapons has always been strong. If one of them is to disappear, the rest will certainly be affected. However, we can only see weapons increasing due to the lawlessness in certain rural areas. We can see that tribal values are still existing. Hence, it is not difficult to assume that sheikhdoms will continue. As a tribesman once said, “we cannot but continue to live as long as the state is not strong enough to protect us and enforce laws and regulations on all citizens. So to ensure our peace and harmony, we need to be a state within the state.” And that says it all. In other words, sheikhdoms will continue and will have much influence on the political, cultural, military, and social life in Yemen for years to come.