Tribalism and Politics in Yemen: Interview with Dr. Khaled Fattah

Noted scholar and SEN Journal contributor Dr. Khaled Fattah, left, recently answered questions on the fractious state of tribalism in Yemen. Dr. Fattah is a guest lecturer at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. He holds a PhD in international relations from the University of St Andrews in Scotland.  Dr. Fattah is often quoted in international media as an expert of Yemen and state-tribe relations in the Arab world.  His forthcoming book is entitled “Tribes and Revolutions in the Middle East”, Hurst Publications, London.

Why did the Yemeni state fail to overcome tribalism?

The failure of the Yemeni state to overcome tribalism is intimately linked to its failure to transform tribesmen into citizens. This failure is attributable, mainly, to state fragility and economic underdevelopment. The Yemeni state is so fragile that it lacks the basic infrastructural power to penetrate society, enforce it well and perform its core functions. It is important to note the difference between tribalism as cultural identification, and tribalism as political identity. As a cultural identification, tribalism is expressed in collective traditions and rituals which provide tribesmen and women with feelings of solidarity, frames of reference and views of meaning. It is the politicisation of tribal cultural identification which turns tribalism into a damaging force against good governance, progress and democratisation. Another reason behind the failure to overcome tribalism in Yemen is the Saudi factor. During the last five decades, the Saudi political administration has been promoting tribalism in Yemen as a counterbalance to possible political threats that may emerge from modern social forces in Sana’a. For example, hundreds of Yemeni tribal leaders are included in a vast network of Saudi patronage system.

Did President Saleh’s strategy of regime maintenance actually help cement tribalism? Or did he try to overcome it?

Saleh’s strategy of regime maintenance has been exclusively guided by survival, even if survival means radical shifts in posture and policy. Tribalism in Yemen is conjoined with politics of survival. In general there are four main approaches which colonial and post-colonial regimes in the Middle East have applied in dealing with tribes: destruction, co-optation, subordination and manipulation. Due to the fact that tribes of Yemen are armed to the teeth and state resources are very limited, Saleh’s regime applied the cooptation approach as one of its main instruments in dealing with tribes. As a result, tribal leaders became powerbrokers who enjoyed influence far beyond the borders of their tribes. Instead of modernising the tribe, Saleh’s regime promoted and encouraged the tribalisation of all agents of political modernisation; namely state institutions, the military and political parties.

Which tribes supported Saleh, which ones did not – and why?

There are more than 190 tribes in Yemen. Each tribe is divided into sub-tribes, clans and extended families. However, for security, economic and political reasons, a number of tribes united into one confederation. In Yemen, there are three major tribal confederations – Hashid, Bakil and Medhej. Saleh comes from Sanhan, which is a clan within the influential tribal confederation of Hashid. During the last three decades, Saleh relied on the tribal support of his clan and confederation to maintain and consolidate his power. In the current uprising, however, Saleh lost the support of many of the influential tribal leaders of Hashid, including the al-Ahmar family which is the most powerful tribal family in Yemen. Clearly, tribes that were marginalised by Saleh’s regime and tribal elites whose interests clashed with the interests of Saleh’s immediate family constitute a major military and financial resource for supplying and complicating the ongoing anti-regime protests. During the last few months, Saleh’s regime depended mainly on the military power of the Republican Guards – commanded by his son, Colonel Ahmed  – and on the Central Security Forces who are led by his nephew, Colonel Tareq. The uprising in Yemen revealed in a very clear manner how Saleh’s regime is a tribal regime.

Can tribalism contribute to political stability?

Though culturally rooted, tribalism is an identity which is shaped politically. It is, however, subject to constant adjustments to security, economic, ecological and political circumstances. It is a fluid and flexible identity and carries with it both positive and negative features. Tribes become sources of instability when the central government does not respond to tribal grievances. In the case of Yemen, the chronic absence of a strong central authority made the tribe the best alternative for fulfilling the primary functions of security provision and conflict management. Tribes of Yemen have often acted as safety networks that provide not only reliable social welfare to their members, but also protection against state authoritarianism. In my view, there can be no stabilisation in tribal societies of the Middle East without political reforms based on constitutional legitimacy, and the successful promotion of active citizenship.

What makes Yemen’s uprising different from other uprisings such as in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or Libya?

There are a number of features that sharply distinguish the Yemeni uprising from the uprisings in the rest of the region. First, it is an uprising that took place in a fragile political entity, with the worst indicators of economic and human development in the region. Compared to other countries where the ‘Arab Spring’ appeared, Yemen has the lowest rate of urbanisation and the smallest middle class. Second, on the eve of the uprising, the map of Yemen was already dotted with numerous spaces of disorder and was fissured with pockets of violence. As a result, the uprising created the opportunity for insurgents, terrorists and militias to flourish and expand. Third, the peaceful Yemeni social intifada has been transformed from being a youth-led uprising into a power struggle between rival elite factions. Fourth, unlike the other Arab countries in which popular protests blossomed, in Yemen there are two militaries involved – one remains loyal to the Saleh regime, the other supports the protesters. The Yemeni military is so tribalised that it mostly reflects tribal coalitions, not state power. Finally, the transitional period in Yemen is threatened by the absence of individuals, groups or institutions that are capable of exercising authority and managing the complex socio-political landscape.

10 Comments

  1. Thanks to SEN and to Dr Khaled Fattah. What a refreshing and reflective interview! The answers explain the complex issue of tribalism in the Arab world in a very clear and fascinating manner. I am a student of Middle Eastern studies. I will share this stimulating interview with others.

  2. Dr Khaled Fattah’ ability to frame, explain and analyse tribalism and Yemen is super! In this interview, I like very much the distincition, which Dr. Fattah makes between the cultural and political aspects of tribalism. Thanks to SEN.

    • What you say clearly shows your lack of knowledge of that part of the World. With respect Dr Khaled Fattah (like many in the diasopra) is playing on Westerners’ ignorance. I was born in the Region & know how it was. Now I am an EU citizen, I have been awarded B.A. PGCE(PCET) M.A. by different U.K. Universities. So, I am not less qualified than Dr Khaled to talk about this subject. I believe Yemen can prosper and be the Felix it used to be.

  3. Thank you Dr Khaled Fattah (and SEN!) for this informative interview, which distills, unpacks and coherently explains the complex socio-political interactions and processes occurring in Yemen today. I recommend this Tribalism and Politics in Yemen interview transcript to current and future students of Middle Eastern politics.

  4. The answers of Dr. Khaled Fattah are insightful reflections to those who want to know in a capsule form the role of tribal identity in Yemen. I liked very much his analysis regarding what sets apart the revolution in Yemen from those in the rest of the region.

  5. For me, Yemen has been one of the least known countries in the Arab Spring. This very informative interview with Dr. Khaled Fattah opened a window for me. Thanks SEN online exclusives!

  6. The summary of what sets apart the uprising in Yemen from the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria is super reflective! I like this interview.

  7. Indeed, a very insightful and reflective interview! I wonder why the one-year old revolution in Yemen is not producing any transformation, change or transition?

  8. How come during British rule there was effective rule & citizens were more civilized towards each other (which incidentally included the citizens of the North who were not citizens of the Federation of South Arabia)? I believe following independence, opportunist individuals (namely,leaders of different so called political parties [who are dispersed & financially supported by outside Governments such as Russia & Egypt who do not wish to see YENEN & YEMENIS to awaken). Most Yemeni intellectuals & professional are in the diasopra. These people with current local home home grown intellectuals working together can take YEMEN from the mire that earlier politicians buried YEMEN in for their own self serving interests]. Those former amatuers bribed non entities who had no stake in society (either North or South) to cause unrest and factional clashes.

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