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Yemen wild card: Tribal loyalties

Faced with deadly protests, President Saleh has turned to tribal leaders for help. But a key sheikh's renunciation of Saleh this weekend in favor of protesters adds to rumblings of civil war.

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He began an intensive round of talks with leading sheikhs in an attempt to shore up support for his regime. Shortly after the talks began, tribesmen such as Ahmed occupied Yemen’s Tahrir Square at the behest of their sheikhs in order to keep antigovernment protesters out. In the following days, sheikhs from the al-Ans, Murad, and Jadaan tribes announced that they would send men to protect the antigovernment protesters.

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Saleh has built a complex patronage network to deepen loyalty among Yemen’s tribes, which have their own agendas, interests, and kinship ties.

But Yemen’s oil production peaked in 2003, and the decline in oil production has resulted in dramatic cuts to the once generously funded patronage system. Now Saleh, who had been pushing for a stronger role for the central government, finds himself increasingly at odds with tribal leaders.

In some parts of Yemen, where the authority of the government is largely absent, the tribes and tribal government – with its many checks and balances – have contributed to stability. However, the same network of kinship ties and allegiances could easily trigger a widespread conflict between the tribes if both Saleh and his political rivals continue to marshal tribal support.

“There are divisions within the tribes and many people still respect Saleh. He is a military man, a fighter, and that counts for a lot in Yemen,” says the sheikh from Wadi Dahr, adding that the Ahmar family knows how the system works and has plenty of money to spread around. “Hussein al-Ahmar and his brothers are businessmen. There are many men who hate Saleh, but they would stand with him because they hate the al-Ahmar brothers and the Hashid even more.”

Historic divisions

The divisions among and within Yemen’s tribes run deep and cannot be neatly categorized according to which confederation a tribe belongs to.

Saleh’s tribe, the Sanhaan, belongs to the Hashid confederation, which is led by the Ahmar family. The Sanhaan and a number of allied tribes within the Hashid confederation remain largely loyal to Saleh.

The tribes that make up Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, the Bakil, are also deeply divided in their support of Saleh. The members of the Bakil and Hashid confederations have historically been opposed to one another, and many tribes among the Bakil are vehemently opposed to any new government that might be dominated by the Hashid and the al-Ahmar family.

Tribal dimension key to Yemen's future

While Yemen’s tribal dimension has often been overlooked by the West, it is likely to play a leading role in whether the Saleh government is overthrown and who and what kind of government will follow him.

At an upscale coffee shop in Sanaa not far from one of the homes of Hussein al-Ahmar, independent political analyst Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani explains that a miscalculation by either the Saleh regime or the al-Ahmar family could lead to civil war.

“If either side overestimates its power, there could be war. While I think the singularity of the tribe is being weakened by urbanization and increasing levels of education, it is still a potent force that will be strengthened if there is conflict. A government led by the al-Ahmar family and the Hashid cannot dominate the Bakil – they don’t have the power to do that. If they tried to, it could also lead to civil war.”

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