12 May 2015: Yemen is a complicated and often misunderstood place. Najwa Adra discusses the role that tribal political structures must play for long-term peace and development in the country.

Image credit: Richard Messenger. Yemen has a vibrant and healthy tradition of community politics and decision-making. Image credit: أسامة الإرياني.

After the bombing, a flood of aid workers will arrive, armed with the latest development buzzwords
At some point in the near future, the bombing of Yemen’s cities and on-the-ground violence taking place there will cease, opening the way for a flood of aid workers representing international organisations to arrive. They will bring with them welcome and much needed humanitarian assistance, as well as well-meaning consultants, armed with the latest development buzzwords and their own ideas of how to rebuild a country.

Models of governance, conflict resolution and micro-credit schemes that have been used elsewhere will be applied to Yemen with little consideration of how well they fit into Yemen’s social and economic environment. While immediate humanitarian relief may assist a harried population, the rebuilding efforts could easily damage the fabric of Yemeni society, thus completing the destruction begun by the combined efforts of former Yemeni president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, and the Saudi-led bombing campaign that began on March 26.

Although Yemen is economically the poorest country in the Middle East, it may be the wealthiest in social capital. Yemen’s limited experience with colonialism has left largely intact important tribal institutions that still prioritise mediation, egalitarian ethics, cooperation and respect for women, all of which can be effectively harnessed in rebuilding and crafting a democratic nation.

The vast majority of Yemen’s rural population, and a growing number of its urban population, self-identifies as tribal (qabayil). Yemeni tribes are territorial units organised into subunits, each with its own elected leader. They are best described as civil society organisations capable of mobilising groups of varying size to serve community needs. Schools, mosques and feeder roads to villages are all constructed to be affordable to the communities by mobilising local labour.

Tribal politics: conflict or cooperation?

I heard a wonderful example of tribal cooperation at a meeting at Oxfam, Sanaa in 2004. Wanting to build a health center in an under-served rural community, Oxfam staff offered the community a proposal for a micro-credit scheme to raise capital for the project. When these plans were rejected, the disappointed development agents left, saying they would return in a month. On their return they found a health center built and awaiting staff to be supplied by Oxfam. Such stories abound throughout Yemen. By listening to the concerns of local people, similar organisational principles can be applied to postwar rebuilding of Yemeni communities.

Yemeni women play a much more important role in society than many realise. Image credit: Rod Wallington. Yemeni women play a more important role in society than many realise. Image credit: Rod Waddington.

Another important form of social capital has supported Yemen’s beleaguered justice system by maintaining security in rural areas. This is customary law, a sophisticated legal system based on mediation and restitution, with a focus on due process. Physical aggression is not tolerated, even among children. Non-confrontational ways of expressing differences and protesting injustice are institutionalised in Yemeni society. These include the use of pithy rhyming phrases that synthesise the protester’s position and invite a similar considered response from his or her adversary.

The gender perspective: Yemeni respect for women

2011 showed the extent to which respect for women has permeated all levels of Yemeni society
Historically, tribalism in Yemen has respected women. Although all legal systems – customary, Islamic law and State law – assume a woman’s dependence on her male kin, economic necessity counteracts the official ideology of male control. Gender segregation is rare in rural communities; women are active economic participants, and they benefit from multiple safety nets. The protection of women is the norm, and women are rarely victims of assault or targets of violence. Yemeni women’s assertiveness often surprises visitors. It is important to note that these attitudes towards women are traditional to Yemen.

The demonstrations of 2011 showed the extent to which tribal principles of cooperation, egalitarianism, due process and respect for women have permeated all levels of Yemeni society. Women were highly visible leaders and participants, as protesters from diverse groups and parties worked together. Yet Yemen’s tribal heritage is under threat. Tribal rules have broken down over the past 10-15 years in response to feuding and warfare in the north and to the extent that corruption and government co-optation of major tribal leaders have reduced their accountability to their constituents. Other threats include an imported, often externally funded, politicised Islam that perceives tribal heterogeneity, flexibility and reliance on consensus as divisive and the mobility of rural women as unacceptable. Ironically, Islamist views are perceived as ‘modern’ by young tribal Yemenis because they differ from local traditions.

Understanding rural society in Yemen

Yemeni spirit and institutions have provided society with extraordinary resilience
Urban Yemeni and expatriate scholars, who have absorbed western visions of modernity and its assumptions that rural life is, by definition, conservative, patriarchal and incompatible with nationalism, also oppose tribalism, usually with little understanding of tribal life. Further, many southern Yemenis distrust northern tribes due to a history of raids in the past and more recent land grabs by corrupt tribal leaders acting at the behest of the Yemen’s ousted president. Finally, a month of merciless bombing by Saudi forces and their allies has polarised Yemen’s population with unprecedented sectarian animosity. The potential for civil war is real.

Experience elsewhere has shown the common practice of contracting relief work to external actors to be unsustainable, often leading to corruption and violence. The alternative is to contract local organisations staffed by Yemeni nationals familiar with the customs and concerns of the affected communities. Only with their input can sustainable models of national development be devised. The spirit and institutions that have provided Yemeni society with its extraordinary resilience can continue to do so if harnessed towards goals of rebuilding that all share.

[more_info_box] Insight on Conflict will soon be launching a new section on Yemen, with updates and profiles of local peacebuilding work in the country. Check back to find out more.[/more_info_box]


Emad - Aden on May 12, 2015, 6:36 p.m.

The writer has some goodwill intentions am sure and probably was fascinated by the quasi-extinct tribal charms and social fabric in the north that may not be found in other countries (expats and tourists usually do). The good news is that this tribal conservation-like atmosphere was everywhere in the world some 500 or 1000 years ago .. and they have overcome it and started civil rule-of-law societies. The norm is actually that outsiders (like our writer) when visiting north Yemen their circle is usually local elite and guides, very motivated by disposition to present the beautiful face of the country through larger-than-life stories and deeds similar to those found in the Arabian nights. It works miracle, and you can notice that she mentioned 2 or 3 times the Saudi airstrikes without any mention of the massacres in Aden, Taiz and the south! The other face, the ugly one, is there every day for local consumption only through child marriage, child recruits, bondage, corruption, racism, monopoly, exploitation and wars! A good example of tribalism going wrong is the billionaire ex-president who ruled the country for 35 years with his family and retinue and eventually destroyed it, not to mention that almost all tribal sheikhs are either corrupt or tyrants. We look forward for a civil society country where people are equal and ruled by the law and no harm in keeping some good tribal values as part of our lifestyles and for the writer we may ensure presence of few museums and conservations in the country so she can have similar nostalgic times when visiting.

Najwa Adra on May 12, 2015, 7:03 p.m.

Good comments ya Emad, but they are not all applicable in this case. Like you, I am critical of exoticizing foreigners who hang out with the urban elite. I actually lived in a tribal community for 18 months in 1978-79, and have lived elsewhere in Yemen for many more years. What I write is from my own research experience. You can find a lot more on my website: www.najwaadra.net In the section on development reports there is a report on social exclusion in which I discuss what I consider the “rape of the south” after 1994. You are absolutely correct that Ali Abdallah and his cronies, the Ahmars and all the others are perfect examples of “tribalism gone wrong.” I discuss this in my article on tribal mediation under “Yemen ethnography”. I also mention it in the blog, but I had only 800 words. This horrendous corruption was facilitated by IMF policies of economic liberalisation. (Similar results in Egypt.) Also Saudi funds, which fed Abdallah Al-Ahmar from the 1960s. So “modern" western forms of governance do not work well in all countries. This is why I argue that local institutions are more sustainable. It is also true that governments everywhere are ruled by self-interest. To think that Saudi Arabia has Yemeni interests at heart is a bit naive. You are not correct that “tribal” organization was everywhere. This is a European idealized view perpetuated by people who have never travelled. Before colonialism there was tremendous diversity in political and social forms all over the world. On the Peninsula and elsewhere in the Middle East, there appear to have been cooperative societies with household based economies like Yemen. This is very unusual. It is not a Marxist “communalism” because property was not shared. These groups traded with Mesopotamian societies that had very different social organization. They also coexisted with local city states that were centers of religion and markets. Their survival is a testament to how well they manage to maintain security and equality most of the time (clearly not everywhere or we would be living in paradise.) I know the awful stuff happening in the South and the North. Heartbreaking. Of course I do not condone Houthis and Ali Abdallah and anyone else’s violence and horror. I am simply arguing that local forms are more sustainable than imports. A question: have you actually spent time among tribes in Yemen? I had never been anywhere rural before I went to Yemen and arrived with many stereotypes, all of which were proved wrong!!

Emad - Aden on May 12, 2015, 8:40 p.m.

Thanks for you for kind explanation .. I was only commenting on the way you presented the topic (a bit Platonic) which is exactly what we don’t want being the reason ( I mean tribalism) why we are at the bottom of the global list when it comes to poverty, corruption, illiteracy to mention only few indicators. Of course I lived and have good knowledge of rural areas in Yemen although am from a city-Aden (my mother’s family originated from a place close to Sana’a), I was born and lived and educated in-country and never was in Europe and that’s why I rule out importing any model to be applied in Yemen and am not sure if there was any hint towards that in my previous comment. I said tribalism was sometime everywhere in the world in the past (recalling Germanic tribes as one example) with may be small variations here and there. It has faded in Europe but you can still sense its traces with some evolution in the ethnicity and family loyalty at present times (either being a Kennedy or being Welsh) .. yes they have dropped their swords and guns and churches but still they belong to families or bigger tribes i.e. nations. The problem in Yemen because of the non-exposure and the level of ignorance, tribal customs combined with religion (you know that combination!) reinforced the isolation and made it easy for rulers to control people using everyday customs and superstition for easy submission. Am sure, you being an anthropologist, it will be easy to find out that customs and traditions are almost preserved since the era of Shiba in Yemen and Axom in northern Ethiopia, the difference being that the Italians probably managed to ease them in Northern Ethiopia. There is a faction in Yemen and the region of the opinion that European style democracy and liberty do not work here. But believe me there is nothing extraordinary or there is no effort made to keep Yemen as it is in terms of the social tribal landslide.. it is simply because they haven’t known a different way and they find complacency in being special that way for obvious reasons! Every Yemeni thinks that he is the best species, the origin of Arabs, Noah’s son resorted to Sana’a (Sam or Sham is the old name of Sana’a as they claim) something that have been influenced by the dense past and is sufficient for their promised heaven and all rulers throughout recent history liked that (keep them lost in that combination mentioned above). No, you can have civil country in a tribal society (UAE is one example among many) but also we have the right to dream further for a liberal country in the long run (Tunisia or Turkey for example) but we need to establish education, awareness, women rights, economic flourishing, research and that cannot be done if we have a tribal corrupt ignorant leader who drives the country through small tribal ignorant corrupt leaders. It is not true that this is how we are and we take it for granted till doom’s day, the Maasai Kenya/Tanzania and the Zulu South Africa are not less tribal than us and they have made it into countries that respect civil rights and laws.

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