Tribes and Tribulations
Yemen’s tribal society is at odds with democratic reform
Source: The Majalla
By Manuel Almeida, 25/07/2011
Amidst the current political standoff in Yemen, hopes are rising that this can simply be a period of political transition during which Yemen can move towards a modern, democratic state. But to what extent is a democratic state compatible with Yemeni society and its strong tribal system in particular?
In an arid region, Yemen stands apart from any other Middle Eastern country due to the sheer scale of its water problems. Before the Arab uprisings of this year, experts feared that Sana’a could very soon become the first capital city in the world to run out of water. In 2009, a study by a group of researchers from Sana’a University indicated that between 70 to 80 per-cent of Yemen’s rural conflicts were related to water.
Yet water was not always a problem for the Yemeni people. The land that today is called Yemen is one of oldest irrigation civilizations in the world. As a report by the Middle East Research and Information Project explains, for millennia local farmers “have practiced sustainable agriculture using available water and land.” Using mountain terraces, elaborate water harvesting techniques and community-managed flood and spring irrigation systems, farmers managed with no great trouble to meet the population’s needs.
The industrialization of Yemen’s agricultural sector—starting in the early 1970s—tipped that millennia-old balance by greatly expanding the cultivation of non-local, water-intensive crops such as citrus fruits and bananas. Matters were made much worse with the huge expansion in the cultivation of the stimulant plant qat, also highly water intensive. Today, it is estimated that qat cultivation absorbs roughly 40 percent of Yemen’s water supplies.
The pressing issue of water scarcity in Yemen, at least partly the result of the implementation of an agricultural system alien to the local context, is a good analogy to the nature of the political challenge faced presently by the Yemeni people. Indeed, the country’s grave crisis seems to be, to an important extent, the consequence of a failed adoption of the state, a form of political organization that was alien to the peoples of the region until the twentieth century, to Yemeni society, and vice-versa.
Amidst the current deadlock, with the opposition demanding a new political order and President Saleh refusing to step down—though he is still currently in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment—many inside and outside Yemen are starting to imagine how a new, post-Saleh political order would look. In particular the hope that the Yemeni state could evolve towards a democratic system is rising.
Close observers of Yemen’s reality, however, support the idea that Yemen’s tribal system is largely incompatible with a modern, democratic state. As Mohammed Jumeh, a Yemeni columnist for the Arab daily newspaper Asharq Alawsat told The Majalla, “Yemeni society is still mainly tribal, and as you know the leader of the tribe is not elected in a democratic way by the tribesmen, he becomes the leader because he succeeds his father. We need to work on changing the people’s culture and their social life-style in order to be ready for receiving the values of democracy.” Jumeh belives such a transition, if it happens, will take a very long time to come about.
Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a, says that Yemen’s tribal system “is still one of the biggest obstacles to the establishment of a modern, democratic, rule of law-based state”. According to Arrabyee , this does not mean that the tribes are completely against the idea of democracy. Simply, the tribes’ traditional and conservative outlook is still hugely influential and to counter this is a very difficult task. As Arrabyee explains, “if you ask people in Yemen what is the law, many people will tell you it is the tribal law, not the state’s.”
While it makes no sense to deny the existence of a natural tension between the tribal way and the idea of a modern, democratic Yemeni state, it is worth questioning why people turn to the tribe in the first place. Beyond being a deeply entrenched cultural code, why do many Yemenis rely on the tribe for security or law enforcement—two tasks which fall within the remit of the state? Probably, part of the answer lies in the fact that the Yemeni state and President Saleh’s government have largely failed to provide for both.
The relationship between Saleh’s own tribe, the Sanhan, and the state is one of the notable exceptions when it comes to the failure of Saleh’s government to provide the Yemeni with the rule of law, jobs beyond the security sector, or basic public services through responsible state institutions. Although a small tribe, the Sanhan has traditionally enjoyed “tremendous access to state resources,” as Sarah Phillips, from the University of Sidney, writes in Yemen and the Politics of Permanent Crisis.
Surely Saleh’s mission wasn’t an easy one. In 1990 he became the President of the new Yemen, faced with the task of unifying a country still dealing with the legacy of nine years of civil war. His 21 years in power (33 if one counts his time as president of north Yemen), however, tell a long a story of ruinous government, societal alienation, dismal corruption and political repression. Saleh’s network of patronage and alliances was supported by an overemphasis on the security sector, under the banner of the threats posed by Al-Qaeda, the Houthi rebellion in the northeast, and the uprisings in the south. But Saleh’s real underlying goal was to enhance his own power and dissuade any possible challengers.
In the meanwhile, a booming, young population—Yemen has one of the highest fertility rates in the Middle East—found no jobs, no future, and no voice. Just before the Arab spring, statistics showed that 60 per cent of Yemen’s population was under the age of 20, and about 40 per cent of the country’s 23 million people were unemployed.
So what next for the Yemeni? It could be assumed that, in the face of such a negative legacy, forcing President Saleh to resign would be the first thing to do. While the Yemeni opposition strongly supports this, the international community seems to think otherwise. As Arrabyee puts it, “from the very beginning of the crisis until today, the international community, namely the US, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China, and the EU, keep saying that power should be transferred in a constitutional and orderly way.” Arrabyee explains, “Saleh is the only one who can do this [so] I can guarantee you 99 per cent that he is coming back.” It seems like, for the Yemeni, the promise of the Arab Spring is still a distant prospect.