News / Middle East

Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes

Yemen is a recent and tenuous union of tribes in the north and south. Influential tribal leaders and some military officers have joined the call for regime change.

A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Monday, September 26, 2011.
A woman takes part in a march demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Sana'a, Monday, September 26, 2011.
David Arnold

This young Arab republic has spent eight months trying to replace its president of 33 years. A millennium of traditions maintained by a collection of competing tribes could determine whether students and civil society demonstrators will yield a multi-party democracy or if the nation will witness the death of hundreds of more pro-democracy protesters.

Yemen’s tribalism is playing out in differing ways in the protests in the cities and in the countryside, and some experts are concerned that civil war could break out. Yemen’s south, which joined its northern neighbors to form the Republic of Yemen in 1990, has been poorly served by its leaders before and after unification.

In the fall of this Arab Spring, the future of free elections in a small country on Saudi Arabia’s southern border is still uncertain. Riyadh and Washington are still reluctant to step in and resolve Yemen’s political disarray, yet one thing is sure: the Saleh regime that has operated as a family-run business that bought the loyalty of most of the more than 190 tribes of the country is threatened.

What went wrong?

The president for too long

“It has been for too long,” said Khaled Fattah, who studies state-tribe relations in the Arab world and is a guest lecturer at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Sweden’s Lund University. Yemen’s youth and its tribes are changing.

“As you know there has been a population explosion and there is a new generation which is not influenced by the tribal system,” said Fattah. Three quarters of Yemen was born in the president’s lifetime and 70 percent of Yemenis are under the age of 25. And a new generation emerged more globally oriented than tribally focused.

“So I think that it was a long period of dancing on the heads of snakes, as the president has said,” Fattah recalled.

A grab taken from Yemen's state television station shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressing the nation from Sana'a September 25, 2011.
A grab taken from Yemen's state television station shows Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh addressing the nation from Sana'a September 25, 2011.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule has depended upon the appointment of his children, nephews, cousins, in-laws and neighbors from the village of his birth to fill major government positions and to run government-controlled businesses.

He has relied on the practice of offering houses, cars, construction, import and export opportunities and the discreet monthly payments by his Ministry of Tribal Affairs of between $100 and $500 to an estimated 6,000 sheikhs among the more than 190 tribes of Yemen. Many of these benefits were directed to the Hashid and Bakil confederations of tribes from the north, where the president is from.

Actually, the amounts of payments were much more, said Charles Schmitz, the president of the Institute of Yemeni Studies and a geographer at Towson University in Maryland who has studied the political economy of development in Yemen for more than 15 years.

Schmitz said Saleh’s patronage system was effective for many years but in addition to the skyrocketing growth of the younger demographic, the attitudes of the tribesmen are changing.

“In fact, we’ve seen quite a lot this summer in the protest movement of tribesmen simply ignoring what their sheikhs, being beholden either to the leaders of the opposition or the leadership of the president, and going off to do whatever they want,” said Schmitz.

Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes
Understanding Yemen - Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes

In Taiz in the south, tribesmen joined the youth movement to recover the center of town after Saleh’s security forces burned the square students had previously occupied. “They came down not as tribesmen but as individuals.” They left their long jambiya daggers at home. “They abandoned their weapons and came down to the street. This is something new,” said Schmitz.

Some tribes are more political than others

By Schmitz’ definition, a tribe is a geographically defined living unit that focuses on local issues such as resources and security. The tribe’s members articulate a conservative traditional ethic and expect their sheikhs to guarantee a system of justice and to arbitrate differences with their neighbors. Violent aggression is only evident in about 20 percent of the tribes, mostly among the Hashid federation in the north. Schmitz said ideologies are not essential.

Nevertheless, some influential leaders of the large northern confederations have recently joined the movement for regime change and now stand behind the youth movement’s demonstrations. Fattah said these northern supporters, many of them once close to Saleh, see an opportunity in the demonstrations to form a political opposition to his regime.

“The military has been tribalized,” said Fattah. “The security apparatus has been tribalized. What we now have during the revolution is the division with the opposition. And this division is not related to the protection of state institutions. It’s a reflection of a tribal competition.”

“If you look at the elite level and particularly in Sana’a, you’re seeing a competition among traditional rivals playing out,” said Leigh Miles, the Yemen program manager for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C. Miles has spent six years watching Yemen’s political changes.

The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, center, surrounded by guards, attends the funerals of tribesmen, who were killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sana'a, May 27, 2011.
The head of the powerful Hashid tribe, Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, center, surrounded by guards, attends the funerals of tribesmen, who were killed in clashes with Yemeni security forces, in Sana'a, May 27, 2011.

She observes several overlapping movements of opposition to Saleh that have risen in recent months to offer a ruling transition in Sana’a: the Joint Meetings Party, which spawned the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue, and the political interests of the northern tribes in the leadership of Brigadier General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, a relative of the president, and Sheikh Sadique al-Ahmar, the head of the Hashid confederation and Yemen’s sheikh of sheikhs.

“Outside of Sana’a, I think the relationship with the tribes is different,” said Miles. “Tribal leaders are part of the movement. Tribesmen are at the squares. They are protesting. They are supporting the aims of the revolution. I don’t see the tribes attempting to co-opt the aims of the revolution. I’m seeing remarkable unity among the tribes in support of the revolution.”

Keeping the pro-democracy movement young

“There have been a lot of reports about the opposition trying to hijack the revolution and trying to take it over,” said Adel Mozip, a journalist in Michigan, is one of a small group of Yemeni-Americans forming a speaker’s bureau to establish the youth movement’s political agenda for a western audience.

“The opposition declared they are here with the revolution three months after the people were on the streets. The opposition did not really drive the revolution. It’s not like they are in the lead and they can tell the youth what to do,"

“Yemen will never be under a one-man rule again,” Mozip vowed. “It’s time for democracy. Enough is enough.”

But the solution may come from outside of Yemen. Those interviewed raised the possibility of the United States and Saudi Arabia taking a more aggressive step to resolve Yemen’s governance dilemma. Fattah says that, like Saleh, Saudi Arabia is believed to pay substantial sums to Yemen’s sheikhs, and gives the largest amounts to the leaders of the Hashid confederation whose tribes live along the Saudi borders. The Saudis are concerned about a rising revolutionary spirit along their borders.

Follow our Middle East reports on Twitter
and discuss them on our Facebook page.

You May Like

Video One Year After Thai Coup, No End in Sight for Military Rule

Since carrying out the May 22, 2014 coup, the general has retired from the military but is still firmly in charge More

Goodbye, New York

This is what the fastest-growing big cities in America have in common More

Job-Seeking Bangladeshis Risk Lives to Find Work

The number of Bangladeshi migrants on smugglers’ boats bound for Southeast Asian countries has soared in the past two years More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs