Tribes & Social Transformation in Yemen [Archives:1998/09/Focus]

March 2 1998

Dr. Abdulhakeem Al-Sharjabi,
Assistant Professor of Sociology,
Sanaa University

The Yemeni society is largely tribal. The dominance of tribes in various aspects of society is clearly visible in different levels and walks of life. In spite of the successful attempts – mainly in the southern governorates – to eradicate tribalism, that area is still largely composed of a mosaic of tribal groups left over from the pre-independence era. Some of the tribes in the south still carry the names of the old kingdoms such Al-Awlaqi, Qataban, Al-Wahidi.

The tribal system in the south is based on blood ties and kinship in an agricultural-cum-bedouin environment. The tribe in the southern governorates went into a period of slow decline or sometimes an accelerated one. The political element was a decisive factor in the tribes’ downwards spiral through reconciliation and replacing the tribe’s collective authority with that of the princes. So the tribal influence was gradually taken over by the strong central authority of the state.
The major social effect of the tribe’s decline was manifested in the change from the life of the bedouin wanderer to a more settled life. Internal and external immigration was another factor that helped in the tribe’s downfall. The economy moved from that of scarcity to be more market oriented.

The individual gradually moved towards the new resources offered by the new groups with the assistance of factors outside the tribal framework. Thus, the individual became less associated with the particular group. This has resulted in a marked change in the conditions of the extended family. Individuals started to distance themselves from their traditional larger groups, gaining more independence.
Despite the collapse in tribal loyalty in the southern governorates, tribal allegiances were then transferred to the ruling authority, taking deep roots there. So the demise of the tribe in the south was really superficial. As soon as the political regime faced any shocks or upheavals, tribal affiliations soon came to the surface. Tribal authority is now quite alive and well in the south. Tribal sheikhs and elders and sons of former sultans have started to regain their old authority, in one way or another.
In the northern governorates, tribal influence and authority reached their lowest point at one period in time. But they started to regain their old power due to a number of factors:

– Following the outbreak of the revolution in September, 1962, the new government took extra care to convince the tribes to accept the republican regime and win their support in the struggle with the monarchist forces. Towards the end of October, 1962, more than 500 tribal sheikhs were invited to come Sanaa to declare their allegiance to the new regime. during their presence in Sanaa, the first constitution of the republic was declared.
The “Defense Council” was then formed of tribal sheikhs, each given the status of a minister of state in the new government. Thus a large number of tribal sheikhs were propitiated to take up the republican cause. Thus, the tribal sheikhs became incorporated within the political body of the state and its official power.
Moreover, tribal leaders were granted economic and financial privileges thereby owning the means of economic production.
Opinions regarding the tribal system in Yemen differ and swing between those in favor and those who oppose it altogether. Each side has its own reasons and justifications. All in all, it van be said that the tribe is not entirely devoid of positive influences. It propagates the values of generosity, chivalry, magnanimity, and other much cherished social principles.

The negative influence, on the other hand, is manifested in the following.
– The relation between the power of the central authority and the strength of the tribal structure is an inverse one. Whenever the central government is strong, the tribal structure becomes weakened and disjointed. In Yemen the tribal system is currently enjoying a period of prosperity. One of the reasons behind the marked lack of progress in the general development process is the strength of the tribal structure and its permeation into the most important parts of the state.
Generally speaking, the tribes play the following negative roles:
* The tribes usually indulge in unofficial trade activities to the detriment of the official economic organization thereby denying the state’s treasury much needed revenue.
* The tribes help keep the social structure in its current state of non-development and stagnation, basing social esteem not on individual achievement but on an inherited status.
* Tribal values usually look down on handicrafts and agricultural work thereby hindering the development of productive work in many areas of the country.
* Women are largely held in low esteem in tribal societies, which marginalizes their role in the social, economic, and political life.
* The tribes greatly contribute to strengthening narrow loyalties at the expense of the public loyalty to the country in general.
* The traditional status of the tribes with their heavily armed individuals pose quite a threat to the democratization process.
* With the preponderance of tribal allegiances and loyalties, nepotism and various other forms favoritism have become quite rife, at the expense of true work productivity.
* The state treasury is being bled by paying out regular allowances to tribal leaders and dispensing with huge handouts to solve tribal conflicts.
In view of the above laid-out analysis and assessment, it can be seen that the tribe can re-produce its values and ethics in accordance with the interests of its individual members. When an individual cannot realize his potential in the modern establishments of the state, he often resorts to the tribe where he can feel more at home. Thus, the tribal structure ingrains new values and concepts in its members, and often co-exist with the new modes and relations of modern life.