Updated: Mar 2, 2021
The importance of tribal identity
By Eric Jeunot
Walking through Yemen is like walking through history. The international community should recognise Yemen’s unique hybrid-sovereignty and the pivotal role that tribes play as autonomous units in collaborating with central government to maintain state stability.
For more than a millennium, Yemeni have inhabited the mountains, plains, deserts and coasts within mixed sedentary and sometimes nomadic communities. Walking through the mountainous villages of the central and northern governorates, it seems the stone and brick cubical houses reach the clouds and beyond affording glimpses of the green and ochre valleys where eagles roam for their prey. From their upper diwan, Yemeni survey the land while drinking coffee or more recently chewing qat. Bright white stone housing scattered across the coastlines and deserts protect from the burning sun, relics of the great spice and frankincense routes of old. In Marib, one can witness the temple of the moon and the throne of Queen Sheba herself. In Shibam, one can walk through the oldest skyscrapers in history or visit Mocha, a small fishing village that was the very centre of the coffee trade for centuries.
“This is a country where the past is ever-present”. 
But for all Yemen’s rich history, it is at its heart about its people. As the descendants of Qahtan, the Yemeni are part of the South Arabian tribes and for more than a millennium have ensured the survival of their unique tribal system. Following Islam since the 8th and 9th centuries, Yemen plays host to several Islamic faiths, within Sunnism and Shiism. Zaydism, in particular, makes Yemen unique in the world. Constructed upon tribal and religious values, Yemeni is an honour-based society, where words given and fulfilled have more value than a signature at the bottom of paper . Over the decade I spent working in tribal areas of Yemen and across the Horn of Africa, I achieved far more through an honour-based approach than a myriad of legal contracts ever could . Sitting in diwan to negotiate while sharing coffee or chewing qat, and giving my words upon shaking hands have often resulted in fewer difficulties with local communities.
However, the politicisation of the tribes during the second half of the 20th century through a system of patronage has added another level of complexity to Yemen society. Yemen is no longer simply tribal and religious, but also politic. A triptych that would see Yemen come to be known for its violence, conflicts and terrorism, rather than as a living historical treasure of human cooperation.
Peace is not a word that I would use to describe Yemeni society. Yemen has always been about balanced opposition between various actors, a ‘mizan’ or ‘equilibrium’ that is delicately maintained between competing powers . As such, peace in its traditional sense does not exist, with the tribes instead respecting a controlled, mediated and balanced opposition or “status quo”. This legacy of tribal behaviour and customary laws has allowed Yemeni to defend their lands and their communities. Since the 19th century, the interference of foreign powers (whom Yemeni have both collaborated with and opposed) has forced Yemen’s governments to integrate and adopt a Western political narrative to legitimate its position in the international system. A narrative, as discussed with many Yemeni since 2013, that is not entirely representative or perceived legitimate. Either because of opposed political ideology or, for many I discussed with, disrespectful and inconsiderate to Yemen identity .
Based on these elements, the idea that the current war in Yemen can only end through political process and agreement cannot be sustained. Furthermore, the promotion of a solely political approach to ending the war denies the complexities of cultural identities and powers. The current Yemen conflict is an example of the influence of the Western powers, where various international actors are focused on achieving “peace” through negotiations and political representatives. Such Western approaches cannot and should not be the only path to support Yemeni. It demonstrates a lack of understanding or consideration toward Yemeni identities, societies and powers. While political actors in Yemen must naturally be involved in negotiations for a truce and the cessation of hostilities, a solely political approach will not reconstruct Yemeni society nor the state. It is important to consider that Yemen, throughout its history, has maintained a hybrid-sovereignty, where tribal and state sovereignties coexist and mutually benefit one another. Whether under the Imamates, Ottoman Empire, British protectorate, or even the recent Republican regime, the various central governments have never fully controlled and enforce their authority across all of Yemen . Even before the civil war, travel permits received from the central government where no substitute for a formal invitation from tribal Shaykhs .
Engaging and respecting the sovereignty and authority of local tribes and their Shaykhs is necessary for the economic development needed to de-escalate the war. Yemeni hybrid-sovereignty needs to be recognised and exercised. Tribes that are currently aligning with the Huthi may not necessarily do so out of ideological affiliation. Many tribes and tribesmen are coerced and are living in fear under Huthi governance, through assassinations of their Shaykhs or abductions and torture . Other tribes may also align temporary with Huthi to defend their honour, people and lands against the Saudi-led coalition which has destroyed their homes and killed their families. Stopping the Saudi-led coalition’s shelling of their cities and villages will not change the theocratic ambitions of the Huthi, but arguably it would allow many tribes to reconsider their interests, opposing and slowing the establishment of the Huthi Imamate . An old Yemeni saying pictures that the “tribes eat with the Imam and tribes eat the Imam”, echoing the status and power of the tribes under the former Imamate.
In other words, giving support to the tribes rather than a shelling could shift having the Huthi to being the primary aggressor rather than an ally. Considering a tribal approach to the war could result in two important features. First, it would portray the Huthi as responsible for much of the bloodshed and hold them accountable. Second, it exposes the Huthi’s attempts to erase tribal sovereignty, identity and customary law as they push for assimilation into a monolithic religious Yemeni identity. These two features could trigger tribal alliances, within Huthi controlled territories and across the frontlines, to weaken the Huthi regime and undermines it legitimacy.
A similar approach can be made in South Yemen, where local development would facilitate the integration of the tribal, religious and political Yemeni identities. Defeating the Huthi alone would not end the war in Yemen. The ‘southern dilemma’, remains unresolved. The Yemeni government and the Southern Transitional Council clash over political ideology and sovereign claims over the Southern territories. The Yemeni government, which remains a legacy of Ali Abdullah Saleh 33 yearlong presidency, is still perceived as an aggressor and a ‘colonial’ power ever since Yemen’s 1990 unification and the civil war of 1994 . A political approach to the southern dilemma, while necessary, cannot be the sole process. Any approach must respect Yemen’s unique hybrid-sovereignty, empowering tribal authorities and local actors to spark local economies. In the last two years, the forefront role that tribes played in Al-Mahara and Marib can be viewed as a precursor to successful methods of local governance to implement development .
Over the past decade working across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, I have witnessed the value of respecting the hybrid-sovereignty of tribal states. For Yemeni, the fact that I needed to seek authorisation from both the central government and local tribal authorities was never an issue. On the contrary, the ability to respect and honour the various laws, customs and behaviours helped me to reach understanding, compromises and conclude successful negotiations at both central and local levels. Based on my various experiences, I can argue that the Eurocentric Westphalian approach to “end” the civil war is doomed to fail for its inability to consider hybrid-sovereignty as a stable and beneficial strategy.
Because it is the historical structure of Yemen, it seems to be important to recognise legitimate tribal authority’s vital role in supporting law, regulating behaviour and spurring economic development. Throughout history, no matter the regime, tribes and their customary law have endured. A tribal perspective and approach must be considered alongside a political approach if there is ever to be a cessation of hostilities in Yemen. The ability to view the war in Yemen through a tribal perspective rather than a solely political or religious approaches allows for creative solutions in conflict solving mechanisms. Furthermore, it allows the creation of a form of sovereignty adapted to Yemen rather than the sovereignty imported from a historical European experience.
This conversation piece is limited in its tribal approach to the conflict and does not position itself against other approaches, be they economic, religious or political. This conversation is rather aimed at reminding the reader that the primary identity of Yemen is tribal, and even originating from the “Jāhiliyyah” as many claim , tribal values endure. In other words, hybrid-sovereignty is a chance for tribal states.
Eric Jeunot is a PhD student in his final year at Victoria University of Wellington, focusing on the tribes-states relations.. Eric has over 10 years of humanitarian experience working in the Middle East and Horn of Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's stance.
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