In an elegantly built stone house, a group of men from the Hamdan tribe gather not far from the palace where former Yemeni ruler Imam Yahya spent his summers in the 1930s and '40s.
Amid the cigarette smoke and din of raised voices, a sheikh from the tribe explains that, like the imam, President Ali Abdullah Saleh depends for his power in large part on the tribes whose territory surrounds Sanaa. The canyon, known as Wadi Dahr, is located an hour outside the capital.
“Imam Yahya called the seven tribes the seven cows, because he had to feed them so much money to keep them loyal to him,” explains the sheikh, who does not want to be identified due to fears of reprisal. “Saleh forgot this saying and now it is costing him. He is trying to make up for the last few years with handouts of money and cars, but I think it may be too late for him. He has made too many enemies.”
This weekend, the embattled Saleh regime lost a key tribal and political ally when Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar resigned from President Saleh’s ruling party, the General People's Congress. Speaking before several thousand tribesmen in the Yemeni city of Amran, 30 miles north of Sanaa, his calls for Saleh to step down were met with chants of, “Down with Saleh, down with the regime.”
Because the sheikh is a leading figure within one of Yemen’s two main tribal confederations and a member of one of Yemen’s wealthiest and most powerful families, his resignation and support for antigovernment protesters threaten to increase tensions between Yemen’s tribes, which are divided on whether to support Saleh.
A number of media outlets have reported that the two main tribal confederations, the Hashid and the Bakil, have thrown their support behind the antigovernment protesters. But some tribes within those confederations still remain allied with the president.
“Without Saleh, who will hold this country together?” asks Ahmed, a man camped out in Sanaa’s Tahrir Square who says he is from the Bani Matar tribe, which is part of the Bakil confederation. “There will be a thousand states in Yemen if Saleh leaves. Here, everyone thinks he can be president. From Hamid al-Ahmar [the brother of Hussein al-Ahmar] to the taxi drivers – they all think they can govern this country.”
Saleh increasingly at odds with tribal leaders
When antigovernment protests in Yemen intensified after the fall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, Saleh did not respond by calling on party loyalists. Instead, he responded by marshaling loyal tribesmen.
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.
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.”
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.”