Tribe and Society in Yemen [Archives:1998/23/Focus]

June 8 1998

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue!
Abdo Ali Othman,
Professor of Sociology,
Sanaa University
Tribal ties form an integral part of the social fabric of the Yemeni society, but do not represent the prevalent relations in this society as many Western researchers tend to generalize.
According to recent studies, many Yemeni researchers are of the opinion that tribal allegiances represent a small part of the overall social ties in Yemen. The majority of the population are settled farmers, craftsmen, fishermen, small traders, merchants and public employees, in addition to groups of people who are connected to certain economic, social and cultural activities as well as scientific and religious professions.
It is true that, chronologically speaking, the tribal system preceded the state system, whether ancient or Islamic. The ascent of the state was due to the merging of various tribes and other social units, as dictated by religious, economic, and/or social factors. These mergers resulted in the creation of various interests, functions and the interaction of larger social groupings which formed different political entities or states.
The people of ancient Yemen had known various forms and types of political entities, which are mentioned by old Himyarite inscriptions. As indicated by the famous Yemeni historian, Al-Hamadani, the words that were used to refer to the old states such as “Jama’ah” (gathering), “Akhlat” (mixing of people), etc, all refer to being settled and having stronger connections with the land. Tribal authority and allegiances, on the other hand, are more closely associated with constant traveling in search of water and pastures.
The concept of tribal allegiance and loyalty today is quite different from the way it was described by the great Arab sociologist, Ibn Khaldoon (1332-1406 AD). Then it was the basis for a strong Arab and Muslim state. Tribalism is understood today as an ideology that does not reflect reality. Furthermore, it is in contradiction with the role of the modern state as well as with the concept of equal citizenship.
The domain of political life in modern society has expanded. It has replaced the tribe with the concept of state and nation, and has replaced nomadic life with the more settled agricultural life. Ibn Khaldoon did not glorify the tribe, but indicated that tribalism preceded civil society and that the bedouins always ended up by becoming more urbanized. Some of the social theories formulated by Ibn Khaldoon about “human organization,” – sociology in modern terms – are still useful in explaining the relationship between tribalism and power and influence within the state. They also explain its association with the decline and eventual collapse of the state.
The Yemeni historian, Al-Hamadani was very much engrossed in following the Yemeni lineage and taking pride in its Qahtani or southern Arabian roots as opposed to Adnani or northern Arabian roots. Despite the fact that such lineage exists, nevertheless, Al-Hamadani concedes that there were many who crossed the lines; i.e., Qahtanis who became Adnanis or members of the Bakeel tribe that joined Hashid.
According to the Yemeni historian Mohammed Abdulqader Ba-Matraf, there is no tribe that can honestly claim that it is purely Yemeni because of the mixing of clans and tribes from various parts or the Arabian Peninsula through numerous migratory waves to and from Yemen.
Researchers indicate that a pure tribe is an imaginary thing. Close cohesion is only found within the single family. A tribe in modern society is more open to social change through interaction with the wider population, due to migration and because of the interaction of economic, demographic and political factors.
In the present-day Yemeni society, there are interwoven structures that include agricultural, pastoral, trade, handicraft and industrial relations. So intact tribal relations, despite their historical roots, represent an exceptional structure that will eventually be influenced by change and has to adapt to the development of the state and its modern establishments.
Tribalism in Yemen has gradually become weaker during the last few decades in many regions of the country. This can be attributed to many factors such as openness to the outside world, the establishment of large cities and other urban centers, division of labor and the emergence of new professions closely associated with the modern institutions of the state. New social relations and affiliations appeared in places like Hadhramaut, Taiz, Aden, Hodeidah, Sanaa and other urban centers. This is true in spite of the visible efforts to re-tribalize some parts of the country today. Such efforts, masterminded by certain tribal leaders who observe the erosion of tribal allegiance, will definitely not have a long-term impact. It is just against the nature of things and against the world trend.
The interaction of tribal relations with those of civil society will ultimately lead in various ways to the natural development of modern civil institutions. This is the pattern worldwide. As the world grows smaller in terms of the volume and level of contact, values that make people equal world citizens will become more important and will replace values that give unique status to members of the same clan.
Within Yemen, it looks like a showdown is inevitable. The steps taken by some circles to curb the natural development of civil societal institutions through an unholy alliance that brings together a totalitarian authority (army-based) and the tribes and their religious allies may eventually lead to the disintegration of the state, an increase in social and class differences leading to the prevalence of upheavals, political violence and social turmoil.