Tribe and Backwardness [Archives:2001/14/Law & Diplomacy]

April 2 2001

Despite the spread of education and increasing numbers of university graduate, Yemen remains involved in tribal loyalty. The tribe stands still stronger than the State. Tribal norms are the sources of judgement and social differences within its environment apart from rulers and regulations.
The long tribal history in Yemen, makes it hard to overcome the problem or even to narrow it. Thus, tribes and Sheiks represent a major barrier towards a modern Yemeni society. Perhaps reasons for the phenomenon are : in the absence of citizens’ vigilance and opinions, sheiks are authorized to speak on their behalf. Individuals are expected to be obedient and servile, even if the Sheiks are unrighteous !
In the tribal society, people are distinguished by their distinctive classes. Some are held in high esteem for their social ranks while others are looked down upon such as artisans and Akhdam (sweepers). Women are considered of a lower status and are denied education. Moreover, the women hasve no rights of inheritance.
Among the Sheiks, there are some who still preserve their own prisons, guards, companions, huge capitals, as well as light and heavy weapons. Those who
oppose the Sheiks are to be imprisoned , and ordinary individuals are supposed to fear their Sheiks and dare not assert their rights.
Revenge and kidnapping take place in connivance with Sheiks, who stand behind these phenomena; though, if there is political will, such incidents can be limited or even ended. However, Sheiks in Yemen, despite their negative role have played important roles for the country’s political stability, security systems and social life.
But, can Sheiks be allowed to continue in the present era? Are they to have any roles or importance in the age of globalization, information and internet?
Is the tribal society able to adapt to Globalization? And, would democracy and a multi-party system in Yemen lead to the demolition of the role of the Sheiks here?
Or would the Sheik’s influence increase in a society that considers Sheiks to be stronger than the parties or the government?
Are Sheiks the leaders of a backward classes? Or, are they leaders of societies and key factors for stability?
To explore this question and to highlight Sheik’s role in the political and social life, we interviewed some of them.
Sheik Abduwahab Mughles sees that Sheiks are social reformers and have important roles in the social and political life of Yemen.
Sheik Mohamed Abdulrahman Mohamed Ali Othman comments: “I would like to make certain that Sheiks, in terms of their political and social roles are part of the governance. This fact is proven by their legal authority. They are, thus, responsible to citizens and the State for all events in their regions. They are responsible for any carelessness within the general frame of the state politics and ensure a comprehensive national development, security and stability . This is made possible through their direct cooperation with the State and those responsible for the local authorities. For instance, Sheiks work to sort out differences between the citizens and decrease burdens of the government. This is done by applying recognized norms on par with law, discipline and general welfare; third: I try to ensure that there is a harmony between the Sheiks’ role and the official duties. There is no contrast or contradiction between Sheik’s roles and duties and those shared by the State, as some may say.”Sheik Othman added: “And if any thing appears to be wrong, this is a result of something else and has nothing to do with the tribal norm. In this regard, Yemen differs from other international and Arab countries, in that its tribal structure is similar to those of the officials. It starts from the village going up wards to reach the city, the family, and tribe. The Sheiks’ role, therefore, is positive in Yemen and advanced. They cooperate with the state at all positive levels. Sheiks have a known role in terms of protection of the homeland and its issues and interests. No doubt, there are some lacunae in these roles, but such are to be recorded as anti-progressive to the essence and constant of the norms of discipline and law.” Concluding his announcement, Sheik said: “We hope that the Sheik’s role would develop in harmony with the spread of education, awareness and specialization.”

The Tribe and the Urban Society
However, some consider Sheiks as leaders of backwardness. Mr. Abdulbari Taher, a well known writer and journalist, believes that the tribal structure has been a fundamental and major factor in all of the disasters in Yemen during the last century.
To Mr. Taher, British colonization in the south, would have been a failure if not backed solidly by tribal leaders there. Britain had not brought such divisions from London, Manchester or Ireland. She had found them in the Badwi (tribal) structure in the southern and eastern governorates, a matter which helped the British to transform themselves into authorities and protectors, mark imaginary boarders, and establish illegitimate administrations.
Mr. Taher added that, similarly, in the North, the Imams succeeded to stand and continued to resist the unification through tribal support.
“We all know the 1948 revolution when most ignorant, poor and uncivilized tribes had attacked it, aiming at conquering Sana’a and destroy all attempts of renewal and modernization.
The Nine Year War, following the 26 September Revolution, according to Mr. Taher, is also witness to this phenomenon. This structure was however met with failure to establish the law and order as well as to prevent the domination of the government on all parts of the Yemeni land. “Kidnapping, roads risky events, revenge and assassinations, are, too, have relationship with this structure.” Mr. Taher believes.
Mr. Taher further said: “Tribal structure in Yemen is an obstacle to civilization and the modern state. The government, though suffering from such a structure, seems callous to make an end to it. Certainly the tribe is a primitive structure that belongs to the pre-national stage. It is a barrier to both nationalism and state. And it is impossible to overcome it, unless there is a real national bond that makes the biggest Sheik, a good citizen subject to the state sovereignty, respect traffic-regulations and obedient to any police-station Head.”
Mr. Taher believes, too, that this tribal structure is supported and encouraged to reject law and discipline in the center of city. Regarding situation in tribal regions, he believes, a Sheiks is the state, judge, army, and security force; Sheik is also the source of legislation that suppresses all opinions, threatens freedom of expression. Sheiks are responsible for all insecurity events. “For instance” Mr. Taher adds: “In Abyan, the Governor can attack places
of writers and intellectuals, but he hesitates to respond to incidents related to terrorism or similar behaviors. The State would clearly support primitiveness and tribalism, but would, on the other hand, beat harshly organizations of civilized society. It would be no exaggeration to say that the State in Yemen remains unable to end loyalties tied to this pre-state age.