South Yemen’s Sheikhs and Sultans: Looking Back to The Future! [Archives:2001/18/Culture]

April 30 2001

By: Karen Dabrowska
What happened to the sheikhs and sultans of south Yemen? Ahmed Al Fadhli was expelled from his country by the British. After spending 27 years in exile he returned home to his old farm which is now producing 40,000 kilos of bananas a month. Sheikh Ahmed bin Thaleb lost all his land but stayed in Hadramaut during the communist era. Today he is dedicated to synthesizing tribal values and 21st century life. They talk to Karen Dabrowska of the Yemen Times about their lives, hopes and dreams.
Ahmed Al Fadhli: “Investment means investing in people!”On August 23rd, 1994 Ahmed Al Fadhli returned to Yemen after 27 years in exile. His farm in Abyan was without a single tree. Today the farm produces 40,000 kilos of bananas a month. Other crops include chives, okra, ladies finger, aborigines and papaya. Al Fadhli would also like to develop the government hotel on the Aden-Sukria Road. But he emphasizes that the most important thing is investing in people.
In the plush offices of Saudi-based MBI International & Partners in central London, Fadhli looked like a fish out of water. He was always immaculately dressed in an expertly tailored suit, fluent in business jargon and a public relations wizard. But there was a sadness in his eyes, money did not bring happiness and he never adjusted to life outside Yemen.
Today, surrounded by his workers, seventy five people in total, of whom 25 are women, who are treated more like family and friends than employees, Fadhli insists there is no place he would rather be. Visiting London would be more of a duty than a pleasure. He is a man with a mission: an unquenchable desire to see Yemen flourish.
“If it flourishes, I will flourish”, he says with a glint in his eye like a businessman who has just clinched a deal. “And we will flourish. First of all Aden will flourish, than Abyan, Lahj and Taiz. The Port of Hodeidah will provide a back up for Aden port which will be an obvious stopping point for container ships of 7000 units and above traveling from Europe”, Fadhli says confidently. “Cargo can be unloaded at Aden and taken to South Africa, Cape Town, the whole of East Africa, the Gulf, Pakistan, India, Iran and Iraq. I was hoping the Hong Kong people would come last year but they did not due to our stupidity. A small clerk can stop the directive of the President regarding investment”.
Al Fadhli was a victim of British colonial politics. “On August 23rd, 1967 the British kicked us out and I returned on August 23rd, 1994, he told the Yemen Times, emphasizing that the date of his return was coincidental. He settled on his old farm in 1995. There is a lot of nostalgia about the good old days of the sultanate, disappointment verging on contempt for the communists! and optimism about the future.
“There was no feudal system. The sultan was elected from seven families. If the tenants were given land which was cleared and easy to farm they had to give up one third of the crop, if the land had to be cleared they had to give up one fifth. If the tenant died, his family inherited the land. In 1948 education for boys was compulsory till primary school and in the 1950s there was compulsory education for girls. But in 2001 education is not compulsory! One percent from each pound of cotton sold was put aside for education and in 1960 there were 45 students at university because of this one cent. The Batias Dam was completed in 1965 and the loan the Abyan Board received from the British was repaid with interest in 1965.
“The communists had good ideas but the implementation was terrible. When I returned to my farm it was without a single tree. We had 17 white horses and the communists killed them and fed the meat to the animals in the zoo”, Fadhli laments.
But he gives the communists the credit for sending people overseas for training even though the left destroyed the social structure and the region became more tribal. “Tribal communism was worse than tribalism and the people became trigger happy. Now they carry guns like the people in London carry umbrellas”.
Fadhli is concerned that the ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) is trying to bring the socialists to back Abyan to show Yemen is a democratic country. He points out that they ruled the south with disastrous results and have now joined the GPC in large numbers. “There is no need for me to break with the GPC but I will tell them what I think about this. I will! start an opposition from within”.
Five Fadhli families once owned a quarter of the Abyan Delta. All the land confiscated during the communist era has not been returned to them after unity. “But at least we are here and will get it back eventually”, Al Fadhli says convinced he will succeed even if it takes a long time.
After returning to the farm Fadhli brought back the old system: the land belongs to the tenants and they are only kicked out if they abuse it.
He has only one business philosophy: investment in people. “If I don’t have money there is no problem. But if I have money I have to give it away”, he says resigned to his generosity. He finances the workers weekly ‘qat rations’, he is supporting five students and he takes a personal interest in the welfare of his workers.
“I want to improve education and health standards. The first thing to do is to improve the people’s standard of living. If you do that even in a very small way you have achieved something”.
The philosophy seems to be the key to the farm’s success. If a buyer turns up on Thursday afternoon the workers gladly give up their weekend to harvest the bananas.
Looking back to the future seems to be the latest game in Abyan and the rest of Yemen. While Fadhli has reintroduced the land tenancy system of the days of the sultanate, the sheikh institution has been updated. It is possible to get a letter of appointment as a working sheikh after gaining the support of the locals and registering in Sana’a. Fadhli got hi! s letter on 27th January. He is a sheikh with democracy at the top of his agenda. Although supportive of local elections in principle he points out that if the governor is not elected you cannot have a local election. The recent local elections were tailored for the GPC to rule.
“I am angry when somebody says we are not ready for democracy. The person who says ‘the Yemenis are not ready for the democracy’ is really saying he is not ready. Nobody can give us anything. If we want our country to flourish we have to make it flourish. And we will. By 2005 we will see definite changes”, Fadhli says with an unshakable confidence.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib: “Synthesizing traditional values and 21st century life”When asked about tribal conflict in south Yemen and the kidnapping of foreigners, Hadrami Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib replies with a satisfied smile: “The tribes in the south have good relations with one another and they exchange ideas. If there is a problem between them it is solved through the mediation of another tribe before anything bad happens”.
Sheikh Thalib emphasized that this is a tradition from ancient times. “Traditions provide the right guidelines on how to live. If these traditions are adhered to there will not be any problems. The loss of tradition causes problems”.
Unlike their counterparts in North Yemen, the Hadrami tribes have never kidnapped foreigners for use as bargaining chips in their disputes with the central government. “Tourists have never been kidnapped in Hadramaut”, the sheikh says proudly. “Cars
have been taken but people have never been kidnapped”.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib from the Al-Kathiri tribe part of the Shenafir Confederation, the biggest tribal grouping in Hadramaut, Yemen’s largest governorate, is a man of peace for whom development and co-operation between all social sectors is a priority.
He lives in Al Hauta, a town 15kms west of Seyun where the local people have built their own hospital. The sheikh takes a personal interest in the work of the Al Hauta
Charitable Association, which runs the hospital dismayed that the government is keen to cash in on a successful venture without playing a role in its development.
“The Health Minister wants everything to belong to them. We had a contract with the Social Development Fund (set up by the World Bank in conjunction with the Yemeni government) and the Ministry of Health to run the hospital. There were no problems with the fund but the Health Ministry did not provide doctors”. Even the midwives trained at the association’s expense were transferred to Shibam under the pretext that the hospital in Al Huata, which serves 36,000 people was just a small center “not really in need of their services”.
The sheikh’s words about reconciliation and co-operation between tribes and classes have a special poignancy when viewed against the backdrop of Hadramaut’s troubled history.
The Kathiris, a Sana’a tribe, conquered Hadramaut in 1488 and eventually settled permanently in the wadi. The Kathiri Sultanate was founded in the eastern part of the wadi, first with Tarim and subsequently with Seyun as its capital.
In the 16th century the western part of the wadi fell under the rule of the Qu’aytis, a Yafi tribe originally brought to the region as paid soldiers to resolve disputes between the Kathiri brothers. The mercenaries soon became as powerful as their paymasters, set up the Qu’ayti Sultanate and made the town of Al-Qatn their capital. The constant warring between the rival tribes greatly reduced the wadi’s agricultural output resulting in famines.
A century-long period of hostilities between the Qu’aytis and the Kathiris started in 1830 over who would rule the town of Shibam, located between Al Qatn and Seyun, the capitals of the sultanates. Twenty-seven years of war left the impoverished city, previously under the joint rule of the two sultans, in the hands of the Qu’aytis.
Wadi Hadramaut remained thus divided with the border between the Qu’ayti and Kathiri sultanates drawn to the east of Shibam, for almost a century. The colonial power of Great Britain was slow to extend its rule in the hinterlands. Hadramaut and Al-Mahra formed the so-called Eastern Aden Protectorate and the British ruled through protection treaties with the local sultans. In 1888 one such treaty was signed with the Qu’ayti Sultan in Al-Mukalla, but the Kathiris did not follow suit until 1918. It was only in 1934 that the British finally extended their control to Wadi Hadramaut, mediating between the warring tribes and signing hundreds of treaties with them as well as half a dozen or so with the most important sultans.
The 1967 revolution resolved the disputes by removing antagonists. The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDYR) was set up and most of the sultans, including the Qu’ayti sultan, fled to Saudi Arabia.
But Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib stayed in Yemen. “The socialists took everything: land, houses, animals”, he recalls with a remarkable absence of bitterness. “I stayed in Hadramaut even though I did not agree with the policies and procedures of the socialists”.
The sheikh lost all his land and could not continue trading, but the people still respected him and his family, which was active in famine relief 70 years ago. The wheel of fortune turned in his favor again when the Yemeni Republic and the PDYR united to form one country in 1990. The land was returned to its previous owners and those who fled returned.
The sheikh is adamant that unity means democracy and elections and is grateful to President Ali Abdallah Saleh for the return of his property.
But the legacy of the socialist era still haunts the people of Hadramaut where many of the disputes are about the re-allocation of land. “The land was turned into collective farms and the lines of demarcation between properties were lost”, the sheikh explained.
“Now there are disputes over the demarcation lines”.
The legacy of class hatred is another bug bearer of the socialist era which the sheikh is eager to erase. Hadrami society is made up of sayyids who claim descent from Prophet Mohammed and qadis, another segment of the ruling class, not from the prophet’s family. They often act as judges. Next come the tribesmen (qabilis) and peasants (fellahin).
Before the socialist era, relations between the classes were amicable. “If you were a landowner you needed people to work on the land”, the sheikh recalls. “There were certain agreements between the landlord and the farmers regarding the division of income from the land. If there was a problem, a judge from the farmers was called in to resolve the dispute. And his decision was final. Each town had its own council with people from every class. They solved problems through discussions and they made plans for the town”.
Today the sheikh is eager to restore co-operation. The Al Kathiri tribe has a high council made up of the president and three deputies. “We have to make friends between the members of society and forget what happened during the socialist period. We have to help the people to work together”.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib would like to see Hadramaut divided into two governorates. He argues that an area of 155,376 sq kms extending from the Arabian Sea to the Ar-Ruba al-Al Khali with a population of more than one million cannot be administered efficiently.
The tribes can play a role in the administration of the governorate and in national politics. “Sheikh Al Ahmar is head of all the Yemeni tribes and he is in government. But now well qualified people are needed and the tribal leaders are promoting their sons. It is the time of education and learning. Just being a sheikh is not enough”, bin Thalib emphasizes. He has asked one of his friends to explore computer technology. The Al Kathiris would like their own website. For Sheikh Ahmed bin Thalib a synthesis of traditional values, modern state institutions, and 21st century technology is a reality: “mediation in tribal conflicts can be speeded up through the use of mobile phones.
The UNDP echoes his views: “Tribal traditions do not constitute an obstacle to development which is aimed at achieving economic and social change such as education, health, water, roads and other projects. Moreover there are indications that tribes in Yemen are generally characterized by receptiveness to what is new and they are eager to adapt to changes. It is possible to conciliate between the social development role of the tribe and the path of state institutions. This can be achieved through consolidating the concepts of the modern state and of the institutions of civil society”.