The Tribe and the State in Yemen [Archives:2004/724/Reportage]

March 25 2004

Hassan Al-Zaidi
The absence of the state's constitutional corporations in the past one hundred years or so, has influenced and contributed tremendously to making the Head of the State the sole person determining the relations between the tribes and the state. This was clearly noticed during the reign of Imam Ahmed and the following period of the formation of the Republic of Yemen, and until today. Conflicts normally erupt between the state and the tribes when the state's ruling authority seeks to impose oppressive practices against tribesmen, and dismisses, reduces or marginalizes the roles of tribes' sheikhs.
The relative stability of relations between the state's authority and the tribes during the Presidency of Ali Abdullah Saleh can be attributed to numerous policies adopted in handling the tribes, ranging from a containment policy to taming, subjugation and sometimes reconciliation and appeasement policies.
The first Government of the Republic in 1962 included some influential Sheikhs, strengthening and expanding their social status. They consequently did not seek the return of the monarchy following its collapse, but rather sought the dominance of politics in the new republican system. The republican system did not eliminate the tribal figures, but give them instead the mechanism to reach power. This explains the traditional relations and the strong tribal influence in the society and the state.

The tribe's influence on the state's decisions
Prior to 1990, the relationship between the state and the tribes, in the former two parts of the country, was based on reciprocity. The ruling powers depended on their tribal roots for protection and gaining support and legitimacy, in return for the state's support of tribal figures and the adaptation of tribal system. The majority of seats of the first parliamentary elections of 1971 went to tribal figures, to the extent that the council looked like a tribal-Sheikhs council. This encouraged the remaining Sheikhs to join the state and its corporations.
The following factors are behind the manifestation of the effectiveness in the tribe in the local community in its conventional form and as an integral part of the political society (the state):
1- The independence tendency of the tribes from the central government verses the state's tendency towards dominance and authority.
2- The tribe's joint liability and common culture connected with individuals.
3- Civil society corporations are immature.
4- The strong tribal allegiance verses the weakness of general national allegiance.
5- The ambitions of some tribal leaders.
6- The role of the state itself in the reproduction of the mentality of the tribe.
7- Insufficient and incompetent social and economic modernization operations and the lack of political stability.
8- Other foreign factors.

Thus, the apparent role of the tribe emerged, and therefore there must be a need for the circulation and spread of joint culture, crystallizing the unanimous national political will, which requires more democracy and expansion of public political participation.

The Tribe and Civil Society
Dr. Mohamed Abdul Malik Al-Motwakel sees that the tribes constitutes the nucleus of civil society corporations. It is an effective and essential corporation. It sometimes assists in curbing the intimidation and dominance of the authoritarian government especially if the tribe's leverage is utilized properly.
Dr. Mohamed Al-Huthy, a professor at the Faculty of Information in Sana'a University, thinks that the noble traditional values of the tribes in Yemen do not exist in Yemen nowadays, except in very rare situations and regions. Many researches have shown that values have changed. However, the tribes neither preserved the constructive and worthy values of the past nor adopted the meaningful and good values of the present. The tribe developed the bad of the past and the ugly of the present. This transformed the tribe and its prominent Sheikhs into seekers of money and fame. Dr. Al-Huthy adds that the state has shown weakness in some stances and that regions that encouraged the tribe to become the alternative to the state. When the state does not grant and protect the citizens' rights, they normally find their refuge in the tribe.

The Influence of Democracy on Yemeni Tribal Society
In spite of the adaptation of various forms of democracy, such as the transfer of power to the elite directly by the public, these democratic practices did not either replace or reduce the foundations of democracy-contradicting conventional formations such as the tribe or the region. Ironically, ineffective civil society corporations and their incompatibility with the current social and economic structure in light of the existing economic crisis reinforce tribal allegiance at moments of conflicting social events, said Dr. Abdulhakeem Al-Sharabi, a sociology professor Sana'a University.

The role of the Tribe and Civil Society in Decision-Making
The influence of modern civil society remains minimal at the state level, and may be less than that of the tribe as a conventional corporation. The tribe posses a strong influence on the state apparatus and on the political decision-making process. Sometimes the tribe fulfills a role independent of and parallel to the state.
The role of the civil society corporation remains theoretically strong in the framework of the call to build the modern state of Yemen and the rule of law, but practically is unable to implement its vision, unlike the tribe. In fact, political decision-makers have not contributed effectively to strengthening the state's development strategy in their regions. On the contrary, they want to sustain their statures through maintaining the situation of their regions as it is. They are afraid that a cultural and economic development renaissance in their regions would jeopardize their social status, says Dr. Foad Al-Salahi.

The Tribe's Army Verses the State's Army
The tribes have played major and decisive roles in political conflicts in Yemen. After the revolution of 1962, the tribes loyal to the defeated monarchy, armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and other foreign powers, were able to regain some ground lost to the Republicans. In fact, they reached the outskirts of Sana'a, surrounded the city and imposed an embargo on the city for 70 days before they were finally defeated. These tribes also inflicted heavy casualties on the Egyptian Armed Forces, which came to Yemen to support the newly founded republican system. They were a people's army fighting against a uniformed and highly mechanized equipped uniformed Egyptian army, supported by armed Yemeni militias.
The tribes also played a worthy role beside the legitimate forces against the secessionists in the civil war of 1994.
The tribes, through involvement in these conflicts, acquired a lot of weapons and still possess them today. In addition, they have gained combat experience from their practical involvement. The difference now is that the military corporation has far more developed military capabilities than the tribes. The tribes still retain a strong military capability and a trained people's army, which could be used and benefited from by any authority despite the fragmentation of tribal unity caused by tribal conflicts, local wars and revenge incidents.

The Authority's Stance on Tribal Powers:
Sheikh Ameen Al-Ukaime, Member of Parliament and a prominent Sheikh in Al-Jouf, explained to Yemen Times that there were some significant policies adopted towards the tribes during the 1980s. The ruling power sensed the danger of the tribes due to the weapons they possessed, and therefore they ignited tribal conflicts to deplete the weapons and to weaken their capabilities in comparison to the capability of the armed forces at that time.

Yemeni Tribes and Current Directions to Fight :
Following the September 11 incidents and the international campaign to counter terrorism, the Yemeni Authorities began the preparation of a security plan called “The Security Redeployment” in some regions, mainly Marib, Al-Jouf and Shabwah, believed to constitute a safe-heaven for terrorists considering also the ragged landscape of these regions. However, the tribes of these regions dealt with the issue of terrorism and the protection of terrorist elements in an unexpected way. The tribes denounced terrorism and refused to provide protection for terrorists who infiltrated to these regions. The tribes have taken into consideration the following factors with regards to terrorism:
1- The tribes avoided military confrontation with the newly founded counter-terrorism forces.
2- The fear and suspicion of most of the tribes that labeling them as harboring terrorists easily gives the chance for some state's officials to get even with them in the case of compulsory confrontation.
3- The lack of support among tribesmen for these extremists.

This is why there has not been a real military confrontation between the tribes and security forces. Minor incidents in Marib and some remote regions took place as a result of misunderstandings and misconduct by either of the two sides, which were quickly contained.

The tribes have adopted different means in dealing with and handling the terrorist elements wanted by the Security Forces, according to the origin of these elements and the collective opinion reached by all members of the tribe. The tribes offered these elements the following choices:
1- Providing them a guarantee for fair trials if they render themselves to the tribe, which would render them to the Security Forces.
2- If the terrorist rejects the offer, they are left on their own and for the Security Forces to apprehend while the tribe sits aside. But the tribe refused to carry out the arrest operation, contrary to desire of the Security Forces.

The Tribes and Foreign Intervention:
Many Sheikhs and social dignitaries depend on high monthly allowances from Saudi Arabia. A minimum allowance is USD 2000 per month for each. This makes these figures more inclined in the direction of Saudi and less interested in what they may obtain from the Authorities. The tribes do not need to exert much effort at the state level to receive services and development projects for their communities since their relations and involvement with the state's officials have become rare.