This is an OPINION page. Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! TRIBALISM in Yemen: Its Laws and Systems [Archives:1998/06/Focus]
By:Dr. Hamood Al-Oudi, Professor of Sociology, Sanaa University
Definition A tribe is a group of people characterized by a number of major common features. One of the main characteristics of a bedouin tribe in Yemen is that it lives on the bare necessities in desert areas. Other features include not settling near urban or even rural areas. A tribe is also incapable of producing an economic surplus that can lead to an accumulation or a complex social structure in the form of classes, systems, etc. A tribe is also incapable of producing a complex cultural, philosophical, or scientific content of systems, laws, or experimental thought.
Characteristics In spite of the lack of modern features, a tribe has its own special characteristics: – A tribe’s life is similar to the rural life in as far as cooperation, solidarity and the team spirit are concerned. Also, large economic differences are almost absent among the tribe’s members. – Due to living mostly in desert areas which lack continuity of the essential resources, a tribe does not settle in one place but moves according to the availability of a decent living, especially where water and grass are available. – A tribe is bound together by blood relations, real or sometimes virtual. In either case, these relations always help strengthen the tribe’s social unity.
The concept of a modern state, on the other hand, carries with it features opposite to those of the tribe. The state is distinguished by its various social groups where there is a pure individual responsibility, as opposed to the tribe’s collective responsibility. The state society is endowed with the necessary stability, whether in urban or rural centers. The third distinguishing feature is that the state society is governed by general rules and regulations that are preserved by the superstructure, whether it is a certain class or any other establishment. The internal relations within a tribe are regulated by a simple set of unwritten social customs and traditions, which are spontaneously formulated by the group.
The Yemeni Society In Yemen, both the state and the tribal societies are intermingled. This phenomenon is readily noticeable. To the north and east of Yemen, the dominant environment is a desert one where Arab bedouin tribes live, whether Yemeni or from other parts of the Arabian peninsula. The features of a settled society can be found in the agricultural areas where settled rural societies sprang up. Thus Yemen was able to produce an ancient civilization where a society with complete social structures was founded. The establishment of a civilized state was only possible through relying on an environment which allows the production of a surplus even in this limited piece of land. The proximity of these two different environments has created a stable and continuous relation between the societies that live in them. Thus both the tribe and modern state have coexisted in Yemen for a long time, a thing that may baffle the casual observer.
The important thing to determine in Yemen is whether the modern state is the norm and the tribe is the exception or vice versa. It can be clearly observed, relying on historical facts, that the tribe is the exception, as far as Yemen is concerned. It is the other way around in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula where the tribe is the norm while the state is the exception. So it can be seen that the state had never disappeared from the Yemeni scene, but there is a sort of ‘flowing and ebbing’ relationship between the state and the tribe. During times of recession, deterioration of means of production, and the dwindling of the surplus, the tribe has the upper hand and society appears to be dominated by the desert tribes, when a drop of water become equitable to a drop of blood. But this does not mean that the state disappears, it remains strong in areas where there is plenty of seasonal rain; where people can settle and start to develop means of production and accumulate a surplus of produce. A good example on that is the Saba’ and Maeen civilizations which flourished in the north-eastern regions of Jawf, Mareb, and Hadhramaut where there is mainly a desert environment.
To build a modern society, the tribe has to modernize and get dissolved within the state. As the first sociologist in the world Ibn Khaldoon noted, the aim is not to subjugate the tribe, but to drastically transform the tribal society into a state society. It is to transform the environment of scarcity into that of petroleum and industry. An impressive example is the transformation of Saudi Arabia which was all through history a group of regions, never a state. Yemen has through the ages preserved, to varying degrees, the semblance of the stable state. This state could ‘ebb’ to the highlands to rely mainly on seasonal rains or flourish and ‘flow’ into the plains at times of prosperity and plenty.
However, by its nature, the tribe often rejects the state and cannot coexist with it. It has to keep its entity intact. When the tribe has the upper hand and is encroaching on the fertile regions for the sheer purpose of survival, it can no longer keep all its traditional features. As Ibn Khaldoon said, it starts to ‘dissolve like salt in water.’ The group solidarity gives way to individual interests, and the concept of a single team and equality turns into inequality through the emergence of the class system. Thus, the tribe starts to lose some of its old characteristics and gain those belonging to the regions in which it has chosen to settle. A tribe needs the state for economic reasons, but rejects the loss of its traditions when the tribal sheikh becomes a merchant thereby putting an end to the traditional concept of his relation with the tribe.
To achieve a complete compatibility between the tribal and state characteristics is an unrealistic proposition. It is either a state or a tribe. When the state is powerful and surplus production is available, the tribe recedes to the background. It either dissolves within the state or changes its concept from one region to another, as is currently happening in the eastern parts of Yemen. When the state becomes weak and production recedes, it starts to revolve in the tribal orbit and try to propitiate the tribe. Then a state of intermingling comes into existence between the tribe, which is benefiting from the state, and the state which is not strong enough to provide a complete alternative for the tribe. This is the worst condition that a state society like Yemen can encounter. This difficult balance can tip towards the state by conquering the tribe like what happened in Iraq and Egypt, or the tribe can conquer that state and turn it into a desert society.
No matter how weak and deteriorated the state becomes in Yemen, it remains dominant norm. When the revolution broke out and Yemen witnessed its worst circumstances, tribal influences did not exceed 20-25% of the country. The concepts of the modern state remained deeply rooted among the remaining 80% of poor peasants and town dwellers. That 20 or 25% has changed considerably during the last 30 odd years. The Bani Hasheesh area is a good example on that. About 15 years ago, they did not have anything and their leader Qassem Munasser became their hero who led them to Sanaa and provided them with their livelihood. Nowadays, Bani Hasheesh is a flourishing first-class investment area in agriculture and handicrafts. The same thing applies to the Jawf and Mareb areas, the people of which used to deal with salt and firewood. Now they are car merchants, legally and illegally. So the tribes in the northern and eastern regions of Yemen are starting to lose some of their old features and become integrated with the wider state society.
The Imamate had given the upper hand to the tribe, while the republic has given precedence to the modern state in accordance with the social and economic developments. The ultimate outcome depends on the efforts of society in making a choice for the future. With the world becoming ever smaller through the advance and expansion in communication, there is no longer a place for backwardness. The future is for the modern democratic state to prosper and flourish.