Yemen's Power Wedding
When the sons of Yemen's most powerful tribal leaders tie the knot, it's not only a marriage -- it's a chance for a show of strength that nobody in Sanaa can ignore.
Source: Foreign Policy, by Adam Baron, 03/05/2103
SANAA, Yemen — Generally speaking, it's hard to imagine anything more mind-numbing than watching a bunch of people discuss how they're going to hand out wedding invitations. But, as I sat at the home of Sheikh Himyar al-Ahmar earlier this month, watching the deputy speaker of Yemen's parliament and about a dozen others, ranging from fellow tribal leaders to his brothers' office staff, fiercely debate the intricacies of how to handle that very task, I was fascinated to the point of embarrassment.
The discussions focused on which guests would have their invitations delivered personally, and who would ultimately give them to whom. But it wasn't the topic itself as much as the prominence of those involved that interested me. Names of key power brokers were dropped by the minute; sitting silently, I wondered if it was possible to divine clues into something more substantial from this glimpse into the mundane inner-workings of Yemen's elite.
Six days later, the marriages of two of the sons of Sheikh Himyar's brother, fellow politician Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, would be marked in a reception attended by thousands of guests. The event contradicted the stereotypes that paint Yemeni society as perpetually on the brink of devolving into a nationwide blood feud, providing a glimpse of the cultural mechanisms that hold it together despite its many fractures
Even among Yemen's many prominent tribal families, the Ahmar clan occupies a special status. Its late patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, was arguably the most powerful and respected tribal leader of his generation -- popular memory places his influence as second only to that of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with whom he was allied until the former's death in 2007. The eldest of the late tribal leader's 10 sons, Sheikh Sadiq, succeeded him as head of the Hashid tribal confederation, but even among his prominent siblings, Sheikh Hamid often seems to get the bulk of the attention.
His father's name alone guaranteed Sheikh Hamid prominence since birth. But he has done more than simply coast on his father's legacy: His business empire is so vast that even activists who accuse him of corruption are users of his cell-phone carrier. And his political prominence is at least partially owed to his willingness to break with the rest of the family: Hamid was the first of his brothers to come out against Saleh, doing so while his father was still alive. His blunt calls for a shakeup earned him the ire of the former president and his allies, who accused the sheikh of simply seeking power for himself. Many Saleh loyalists accused him of orchestrating the Arab Spring-inspired protests that ultimately unseated the longtime Yemeni strongman in 2011.
"If you think Hamid runs things now, wait until you see this wedding," a friend told me a few days prior. His tone may have hinted at his tribal and political issues with the Ahmars, but he did have a point. On some level, a massive celebration was a virtual necessity: In Yemen's fluid post-Saleh political environment, the wedding was an obvious opportunity for a show of strength.
By the day of the wedding, news of the upcoming nuptials had spread throughout Sanaa. When I walked out my front door on Thursday, my neighbors, noticing that I had donned traditional Yemeni formal wear -- that is, a freshly dry-cleaned thobe, an embroidered scarf, a tailored jacket, and a ceremonial dagger -- knew immediately where I was heading.
"The Ahmar wedding is today, isn't it?" the guy who runs the shop next to my house, a staunch supporter of the former president, remarked with a smirk. "Send my regards to Sheikh Sadiq."
His joke went over my head, as I was still catching up on sleep I lost attending the grooms' samra, a late night reception that was part of a week-long marathon celebration. I'd planned on staying for an hour, but the display of tribal traditions kept me glued to my seat. It was much like the wedding itself -- and, for that matter, most social gatherings frequented by Yemeni males -- a qat chew. Guests reclined on the low couches that filled the cavernous hall, chatting with those around them as musicians played traditional music.