Desert diplomacy: a tale of two Yemeni sheikhs

Two brothers - one a doctor, the other a politician - follow family tradition and mete out justice among their dagger-sporting brethren.

Every morning Yemeni tribesmen, sporting hooked daggers, gather at the home of the al-Faid brothers, two young sheikhs in a remote corner of Yemen. As community leaders, the brothers have the unenviable task of mediating "minor feuds," which in Northern Yemen can mean several deaths in a week.

The two men are helping forge a democratic state, with the help of the authority that comes with being sheiks. Their struggle illustrates Yemen's uphill trek toward modernity.

Omar al-Faid, a soft-spoken doctor, is rising through the ranks of Yemen's public health system. His younger brother, Othman, is the most powerful Parliamentarian in Sadah, a remote region of the country that shares a long-contested border with Saudi Arabia.

Both sheiks live in the shadow of their father, a former colonel in the Republican Revolution, which ended in 1967. The republican side, which won the war, backed by Nasserist Egypt's powerful air force, had imagined a modern democratic state as its crowning victory. What Yemenis have, more than three decades later, is a poor country still plodding along in traditional, often undemocratic ways.

Still, the spirit of the revolution lives on with young idealists like Othman, who tried recently to resolve a tribal conflict near the border.

A fresh confrontation had led to skirmishes from behind sand dunes and palm trees, leaving nine tribesmen dead. The man behind the trouble, according to Othman, was a powerful local sheikh in the Wa-elah tribe, Mohamed bin Shagea, who commands a small army.

Sheikh Shagea, previously backed by wealthy Saudis, was upset that the Yemeni government had drawn a new border with the Saudis through his cherished date plantation.

"There really isn't anything to fight over except a lot of sand," explains Othman, who tried using his role as a fellow sheikh and government representative to persuade him to accept the new border. "Instead of claiming Saudi backing, which he has lost, bin Shagea now swears he is a follower of Osama bin Laden." By claiming the backing of Bin Laden, the wealthy Saudi national wanted in the United States in connection with the 1998 bombings of African embassies, the Yemeni sheikh was threatening the central government with terror if it didn't concede.

Using his best diplomacy, Othman tried to convince the outlaw sheikh that Yemeni President Saleh had everyone's interest in mind by drawing a clear line in the sand - something even British and Ottoman colonialists were reluctant to do for fear of tribal bloodshed.

But when Othman left the border, Shagea resumed warring with another tribe loyal to the government. "I hope he'll just get tired of fighting," said Othman, clearly frustrated by his failure.

Both Othman and his brother, Omar, seem aware their inherited roles in forging a modern state require ridding Yemen of its current reputation as a haven for kidnappers and Islamic terrorists.

Until last year, Yemen had a growing tourism industry. But the lid blew off with the suicide bombing of the USS Cole that left 17 American sailors dead.

Omar is distressed at the bombing, but says that the West needs to do less condemning of Yemen, and more to help it reduce the likelihood of another attack.

The fight against Islamic-based terrorism will be won, Omar believes, when citizens in Yemen start seeing the benefits development programs that provide jobs.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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