Yemen is a tribal society, with 75% of the population living in the rural areas. The independence of tribes is apparent in the lack of state control in tribal regions. Yemen is a multi-layered tribal society that is prone to a variety of tensions between the traditional and modern forms of government. Tribal society has been an effective and enduring source of government for the populations of northern Yemen for millennia. Providing security, stability and predictability, tribal authorities know their people as well as their territory and are intimately familiar with local perceptions of justice. The rich and enduring tribal social structures provide a strong and resilient social fabric that promotes solidarity and collective action.
The members of the three most influential groups in Yemen – the tribes, the military, and the business class – all come from the same narrow set of elites. The narrowness of the bases of power in the country point to a bleak future for the country, one that is likely to be marked by tremendous instability. During the early 1990s, the banner of a conference in Yemen proclaimed: “Yemen is the Tribes and the Tribes are Yemen”. This statement signifies the weakness of national identity in Yemen, which is grounded in loyalty to family, lineage or village rather than to an abstract idea like the Yemeni state.
The structure of the Yemeni population dates back to the history of a number of tribes that inhabited and settled in Yemen. Even though it is difficult to pinpoint a specific date for modern settlements in Yemen, the archaeological and cultural history of the Yemeni people clearly shows tribal diversity in Yemeni society. The tribal identity has always been strong and tribes often operated as independent formations, only loosely affiliated to a central authority. Even ancient Kingdoms, like the Ma’ien Kingdom in 14th century BC, were based on tribal and monarchical alliances. The monarch had limited authority, having to consult with a tribal council on the affairs of the Kingdom.
A heathen life had characterized pre-Islamic Yemen until Islam spread into Yemen. The great tribe of Hamdan, the ancestors of the Hashid and Bakil tribes, accepted an invitation from the Prophet Mohammed to adopt Islam and the whole of the tribe were converted to Islam in a single day by Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali. Yemeni tribes raced to send their delegates to be the part of the Islamic State.
The population of the coastal regions mixed with incoming Africans from the Horn of Africa and from Southwestern India. The majority of the regions population is known for tolerance and friendliness and not being aggressive. The nature of population of the mountainous regions and highlands is linked with their land. They tend to travel less and thus are mostly characterized with isolation, internal disputes over land, trees and harvest. The population of the northeastern plains is characterized as being professional herdsmen and travelers in search for pasturage.
The diversity of such tribes and their economic activity has led to different local dialects and traditional clothing reflecting the different climatic conditions. The coastal population dresses in white light clothing with interwoven hats leaving some pores for air to penetrate, thus protecting against the hot sun. A more colorful dressing code dominates the mountains of Udain, Ibb, Al-Hujarya, Yafa, Al-Dhala’a, Rayma and other regions. Dark colors are dominant in the dressing code of the population in the mountains and northern regions. Despite the strong attachment to their traditions, some of those tribes’ traits have begun to disappear or mix with other traditions, while other traditional practices have gained with the spread of roads and transportation.
In 1911, Imam Yahia, of the Zaydist Islamic sect, managed to unify different tribes in North Yemen against Ottoman rule. As a consequence, the Ottoman government was forced to acknowledge the sovereignty of the region. In 1918, a theocratic state under Imam Yahia was established called the Mutawakliat Kingdom. The Imam and his successor (Ahmed) used bribes and a series of coercive tactics to hold the support of the tribes. The bribes were mainly given to Sheiks of the Hashid and Bakil tribes, which were the predominant tribal confederations of the region. To coerce tribal support, meanwhile, the Imamate held family members of tribal Sheiks hostage. If any tribe threatened the Imam’s authority, these family members were killed.
A tribe - genealogically speaking is a group of people who consider themselves as the progeny of a shared father. This father may already lie a few generations in the past and he may have had many children who again had many children themselves and so forth. Hence a tribe consists of sub-tribes who also consist of sub-tribes and who again consist of sub-tribes who finally consist of families. Tribes are political and social units, sometimes consisting of only a few families. While the relationship between them is usually peaceful, disputes or conflicts are usually over resources such as water and land. The many levels of conflict are complex, interlinked and multi-layered, and rooted in political, social and economic issues, internal and local, as well as external, regional and international.
On the example of Khawlan from Khawlan Al-Tiyal region that lies a few kilometers in south east of Sana’a. Khawlan is a father who has a couple of sons who had many sons. One of these is Jabr. One of the descendants of Jabr (Bani Jabr), called Jahm, again had many children and grandchildren and grand-grandchildren one of whom is Tu’ayman. Another of these sons is Zaiyd. His sons and daughters bear the name Al Zaiydi (belonging to Zaiyd). The families of the Al Zaiydi tribe reside in the borderland to and in western parts of Marib (Sirwah district).
Yemen is dominated by several tribal confederations, each of which includes tribes, clans and extended families.
- The Hashid is the most influential, though second largest in population, with hundreds of thousands of followers. The confederation is concentrated around the north-east governorate of Amran and associated tribes and clans include Al Osaimat, Othar, Kharef, Bani Suraim, Hamdan and Sanhan, which is the clan of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Republican Guard, was the only truly national institution, but it too had a distinctive tribal character. Recruitment for the Republican Guard was mainly from the Hashid, the President’s own.
- The Bakil is perhaps the second most influential, though with the largest population, with hundreds of thousands of followers. With leaders from the Abu Lahoum and Nihm tribes, it is concentrated north of Sanaa. Associated tribes and clans include the Khawlan, Arhab, Al Hada, Al Jidaan, Anis, Dihm, Bani Mata and Al Haimatyeen.
- The Madhaj confederation is third in both influence and size. It is geographically dispersed, but concentrated in the central part of the country. Associated tribes and clans include the Ans, Al Zaraniq, Al Awaliq, Kaifah, Al Bakzm, Al Sabyha, Al Abadil, Al Alhasani and Al Fadhli. The two most known tribes of Marib are both genealogically connected to Madhhaj - ‘ABIDA, whose territory is in the Wadi district and BANI MURAD, whose territory is spread over the districts Jabal Mural, Al-Juba, Rahba, parts of Harib, Mahliya, and ‘Abdiya.
These confederations are located in the north, as South Yemen's socialist leaders reduced the power of the tribes before uniting with the north in 1990. Due to their distinct histories, North and South Yemen had contrasting institutions at the time of unification. Notably, North Yemen had a very strong and independent tribal structure which constrained the influence of the state significantly. South Yemen, on the other hand, had an ideologically oriented state controlled by one party, where tribes virtually played no role.
Reasons for tribal clashes include marital rows between tribes, and material disputes, especially over land and water. Tribal clashes (thar) also involve vendetta and blood-revenge, and can last for years, destabilising whole areas, though usually limited to time and place. Other factors may include status, honor and obligations due to tribal values, e.g., the protection of people seeking refuge in the tribe. In fact, economics play a major role in tribal conflicts.
Disputes within tribes, between tribes, and between tribes and the central government have long been a common feature in the tribal areas in Yemen. In principle, however, tribal conflicts are resolved by mediation, with compensation determined by tribal customary law (urf). Throughout Yemen, tribal conflicts often serve as proxies for disputes over distribution of scarce resources, as a principal source of tension in tribal areas is the perception of huge disparities in income, and unequal distribution of resources and benefits emanating from development projects.
The conflicts are often over resources. In Al-Jawf, Alhazm and Alkhalaq have longstanding conflicts over water. For example, the conflict between Hamdan and Al-Shulan, one of the most complicated conflicts in Al-Hazm districts, the capital town of Al-jawf, started over a water well, and continued for more than three decades. Over 100 people were killed because of this conflict and hundreds were injured. More importantly the conflict prevented investment and development as well as affected the security situation in the whole governorate. Within the Hamdan tribes, Alshajn, Aal Katheer and Alfoqman districts have been in conflicts over the rainflow path of Wadi Waraidan for at least the last 50 years. Those conflicts escalated, leading to revenge killing which prevented citizens from Al-Khalaq from accessing Al-Hazm city because of the conflict.
In Mareb city and Alwadi districts, most of the conflicts are over contracting services and employment with gas and oil companies. Most of the conflicts take the shape of blocking access of companies to their sites in attempts to pressure them to deliver demands. Sometimes the conflicts escalate leading to revenge killing problems among the tribes. For example, in late June 2010, at least 7 people were killed and at least 12 were injured in a recent fight between the large tribes of Abeeda (in Alwadi district) and the Balhareth (from Shabwa) over border areas between the two tribes which were potential areas for oil companies’ services.
A further politicization of tribal conflict was illustrated around the time of the 1993 and 1997 parliamentary elections, and the 2001 local elections. Local councils and heads of councils expressed concern about the government trying to block the functioning of elected councils, thus preventing them from acting as agents of development and change in their community, which without a doubt would escalate the conflict and feeling of frustration and anger towards the government.
Youth are more vulnerable to engaging in conflicts, especially those who have less education and are unemployed. Yemeni law defines a "child" as under the age of 15, but the tribes do not consider them children. In tribal culture, there is a concept of 'full man'. When a boy is married he is considered an adult, no matter his age, and now owes allegiance to his tribe. Armed boys, often as young as 12 year olds, are married, and are fighting to protect their households. While unmarried boys are not expected to fight, very young children are often familiar with guns. Childhood for many ends early in Yemen and, as with the cultural practice of child brides, the preponderance of adolescents participating in tribal conflicts may only reflect Yemen's very young population living as adults before the internationally recognized age of 18.
Women also have an indirect influence on conflict. Women fuel conflict by demanding that the men in their family take revenge. A local proverb in Mareb says “Women will talk…” referring to how women in town will talk about a man who does not take revenge. Women’s role is often ignored while they have big potential to influence conflict in their areas.
Marib is a conservative and tribal-dominated eastern governorate. It has become no surprise to hear news of clashes between the tribes and military forces in Marib. Weapon ownership in Marib Governorate is the highest in Yemen, with Marib men averaging three weapons each. In Marib Governorate, a constantly expressed source of frustration is the lack of basic infrastructure and that local people do not receive a fair share of the income generated from oil extraction from their land. Hence the ongoing destruction of oil pipelines in the governorate. In 1999 for instance, the oil pipeline in Marib was blown up 39 times (though only reported 4 times in the national media). At the same time, while Marib tribal people complain that the government tends to favor tribes who are in its ‘good graces’, many central government figures react with negative perceptions of the social hierarchy and traditional structures in Marib. Demands Marib tribes have for services and resources from the central government have required reciprocal cooperation.
As far as the social structure of Marib Governorate is concerned, it is made up of four main tribes:
- Bani Gabr Khawlan which includes: Gahm, Iyaal Saeed
- Al-Jidaan which according to the tribal division belongs to Nahm Bakeel
The security situation in Marib is marked by what could be called a ‘constant state of negotiation’. People are used to the presence of warfare, mediating interventions, making alliances and renegotiating them. The historical sites of the ancient kingdoms have drawn many tourists to Marib, the ancient home of the Sabaen kingdom and the Queen of Sheba. Ever since the 1990s the tribes living in the region have benefitted from the influx of foreigners, not only in terms of tourism but also as they abducted them in order to negotiate their demands with the Yemeni government.
Each tribe has its own borders that separates it from the others. It should be said that the wars and conflicts which have been witnessed recently were not only between the government and these tribes, for the tribes have also indulged in many wars among themselves, especially when borders are discussed. The wars and conflicts which have been witnessed recently were not only between the government and these tribes, for the tribes have also indulged in many wars among themselves, especially when borders are discussed. The latest of these wars broke out last year, immediately after the parliamentary elections. In short, each tribe has indulged in wars with its neighbors. However, this kind of conflict among the neighboring tribes has been disappearing, especially in the 1990s. The conflict changed: the tribes fight the government, not each other. The government looks at the inhabitants of these tribes as agents and trouble makers, while they in return accuse the government of exploitation and look at it as the cause of their deprivation and sufferings.
In 2009 the Government encouraged the formation of a "popular army" of tribesmen to supplement the regular army's fight against the Houthis in northern Yemen. The Government used the "popular army" to harness tribal support for the war, increase its numbers and firepower in the region, and engage in illegitimate tactics. By allowing fighting tribesmen to loot and plunder, the Government would reward them for their loyalty to the government. Tribalization of the war is particularly pronounced in Harf Sufyan, where Sufyan and Hashid tribes share a long border and long-standing tensions owing to a major land dispute. After the war expanded to Harf Sufyan, Yemen Times Online reported in late August 2009 that more than 3,000 Hashid tribesmen were being mobilized to fight the Houthis there. While some tribes contributed fighters to the Government's side, others supported the Houthis, out of shared anti-government sentiments, appreciation for the Houthis' help in resolving tribal disputes, or outrage at the collateral damage caused by the Government's bombing of population centers.
Some feared that even if the war were to end soon, there would be tribal conflict side-effects that would ignite a chain reaction of revenge killings that will continue indefinitely. For that reason, some tribes resisted the government's efforts to involve them in the war. For example, the Dumhamid, a Bakil-affiliated tribe, did not allow army troops to enter Harf Sufyan through its territory, for fear of provoking a conflict with neighboring tribes. Ither Bakil-affiliated tribes blocked the army's advance through Amran governorate because they were angry that the Government was favoring the Hashid by recruiting fighting tribesmen only from it. Many of the tribes surrounding Sana'a were so fed up with the government that they would not think twice about supporting the Houthis if invited.
Yemen in the 21st Century reflected the takeover in the 1970s of the Yemeni state by northern Zaydi tribesmen through their acquiring a dominant presence in the military officer corps. The historical tension in both the pre-modern and modern Yemeni states was between state power, representing urban and non-tribal populations derived from the Shafa'i (Sunni) peasantry who live in the fertile lands of lower Yemen, and northern tribesmen who herald from the harsh and barren lands of upper Yemen. Upper Yemen could not support significant settled agriculture, so northern tribes from that area supplemented their income through livestock herding, trade, and most importantly, raiding the more prosperous communities of lower Yemen. The state has never enjoyed full control over the tribes but has established a delicate balance of power vis-a-vis the major tribes based on the sharing of economic and political benefits of power.
Yemen continued to be plagued by tribal violence. Kidnappings had traditionally been used as a means for tribes to pressure the government to accede to their demands for resources or improved services. Although a government crackdown in recent years has reduce the number of kidnappings, a couple of high-profile cases occurred in December 2008: three Germans were kidnapped in the Beit Bous area of Sana'a and released after one week in captivity and a South African woman and her two sons were kidnapped in Abyan governorate in southern Yemen and released unharmed a few days later.
Tribal violence results in a number of killings and other abuses, and the government's ability to control tribal elements remained limited. In several cases long-standing tribal disputes were resolved through government-supported mediation by nongovernmental actors. In December 2005, a retired German diplomat and his family were kidnapped and released unharmed several days later. Soon after, four Italian tourists were kidnapped by a tribe in the Marib region, and released after several days of negotiations. The last incident of tribal violence involving Americans took place in December 2002, when three American doctors were killed near the southwestern city of Ibb. During 2008 there were some reports of tribal kidnappings, traditionally carried out to attract government attention to specific grievances.
Yemen is a poor, developing country. The central government has control over the major cities and towns, while traditional tribal powers control the outlying areas. Tourists and expatriates run the greatest risk of encountering criminal elements in those areas. The lack of central control in certain areas has allowed Yemen to be used as a transit point for Islamic extremists and weapons. However, violent crimes against foreigners are rare. Land disputes are common even in Sana'a, and frequently evolve into exchanges of gunfire within urban areas. Kidnappings are also a persistent problem throughout Yemen.
Tribes have been known to hijack automobiles and other expensive equipment owned by foreign companies and diplomatic missions in order to pressure the government to agree to the tribes' demands. Attacks on oil pipelines and vehicles are commonplace in Yemen. These types of attacks occur most frequently in areas of oil and mineral extraction, including the outlying governorates of Marib and Shabwa. Tribes in these regions claim they are not getting their fair share of economic activity in their areas, and investors should be sensitive to the need to build strong community relations. The provision of community-based services, such as healthcare and education, contribute to protecting investments in isolated areas.
By 2009 Occidental Petroleum was considering ending its oil exploration and production operations in Yemen due to increasingly violent confrontations with local tribesmen and stalled negotiations with the Government over a Gas-Sharing Agreement (GSA), Oxy General Manager Donald Lipinski told EconOff on June 15. Oxy, one of the two remaining U.S. oil companies in Yemen (the other is Hunt Oil), began operating in Yemen in 1989 and produced 28 MMBL (thousand barrels per day) in oil concession blocks S-1 and 75, roughly 10 per cent of Yemen's total daily production in 2009. As production rates in Oxy's blocks dwindled, the company sought to undertake expensive 3-D seismic imaging of unexplored territory to pave the way for future exploration activities. Tribesmen in the Shebwa and Jawf governorates, however, repeatedly prevented Oxy-contracted teams from conducting such geological survey work on their land, by blocking roads, firing weapons at team members, and seizing Oxy vehicles. Three Oxy-contracted seismic imagery team members were killed in 2007 and three more were injured in February 2009, despite a Government security escort and a Ministry of Oil permit to operate in the area.
The Government only exacerbated the problem by lavishing tribal leaders in Shebwa and Jawf with new SUV's and cash payments in exchange for granting Oxy contractors brief access to their land for seismic shoots. The Government attempt to appease the tribes only emboldened them, resulting in small groups of armed tribesmen approaching the main gate of Oxy's facility in Shebwa and demanding jobs. In the majority of cases, Oxy gave in to the tribes' demands, offering them "ghost worker" positions that list local residents on the payroll but do not require them to actually show up to work.
Tribesmen bombed Yemen's main oil pipeline in Maarib province in December 2013, halting oil flows to the Ras Isa oil terminal on the Red Sea. Armed tribesmen prevented repair teams from fixing the oil pipeline and army forces clashed with them, and one army officer and a tribal fighter were killed. Before a spate of attacks which began in 2011, the 270-mile Maarib pipeline carried around 110,000 barrels per day to Ras Isa.
Since the 1970s, there has been a systematic privileging of the interests of tribes in the state allocation of resources, including in the allocation of employment in the civil service, in the promotion of military officers and the distributions of state contracts and resources. While key northern tribes have benefited from this new allocation of state resources, there the hierarchy of power within the tribal system has determined which tribes, or groupings within tribes, receive the most patronage.
Tribal interests have also emerged in a new business elite. In contrast with the established business elite, the parasitic business elite relies almost exclusively on state contracts for its business. Thus, they have profited enormously from the opaque system of awarding state contracts, and from the graft endemic in the procurement process.
Patronage payoffs to important tribes come in various forms. The most direct means is through direct budgetary support to tribes in the national budget (mezaniyya). The Yemeni government has rejected description of this payoff as corruption per se, rather deeming its support for traditional social forms in Yemen. Another example is the state's payment of salaries to the security personnel of tribal shaykhs through the Ministry of Local Administration, which is supposed to oversee local government. Tribes also benefit from patronage distributions to the military and the creation of a parasitic bourgeoisie, both described more fully below.
Like most countries, Yemen has a series of regional leaders who play important local roles. These may be regional leaders, clan elders, religious figures, successful businessmen or others. In some cases, regional notables sit on Yemen's district councils, but not always. Their loyalty may be secured through general patronage distribution (for example, a state project in the area for which a regional notable may take credit), or in some cases, through individual graft (procurement being a favorite instrument with which to enrich favored individuals). The GPC plays a particularly important role in identifying and recruiting regional notables into the national power structure, and securing the distribution of patronage for them. This was in sharp relief before the April 2003 parliamentary elections when the GPC recruited a significant number of new candidates who previously had little to do with the party.
Like technocrats, regional notables may be brought into centers of power in extraordinary circumstances and only as individuals. Regional notables are even less cohesive as a unit than technocrats, and there is little difficulty in marginalizing a local notable if circumstances warrant. There is no formal structure or informal network that adheres regional notables to each other.
Yemen is dominated by a network of tribal systems where beliefs often directly contradict the content of human rights treaties to which the country is party. Awareness of the treaties and their contents is not only limited among the general population but among legal practitioners as well. Informal structures are very strong in Yemen and many tribes and communities administer themselves with little contact with the central authority. They simply will not integrate human rights treaties in their jurisdictions of which they either have no knowledge of or faith in. The legal system, which is often at conflict with the tribal system, lacks credibility and effectiveness in dispensing justice and creating conditions for full enjoyment of the many rights the Yemeni population has been granted by the Constitution. Responsive and capable local governance remains elusive, while civil society continues to face many constraints in the way of its effective participation in public life.
The ability of the state to divide sheikhs from their tribes and cultivate some sheikhs’ personal dependence on the regime means that political relationships are essentially personal and private rather than public and institutional while patron-client relationships and widespread corruption have overridden some of the norms by which tribesmen used to operate. Accordingly, the regime is concerned only with maintaining its stability through patronage and cooption, and preventing the emergence of any significant locus of threat to its central power. This imperative enforces a short-term tactical focus and inhibits the development of a state building project capable of addressing long-term strategic challenges.
Tribal behavior can be a force either for or against decentralization. The challenge for government then becomes one of maximizing the contribution of tribes while minimizing the dysfunctional side of tribal behavior. Managing expectations in essentially means dealing with sheikhs because in the end, they operate in a patronage situation. Their word is final in their area. They protect and provide and in return, people owe their allegiance.
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