When the sons of Yemen's most powerful tribal leaders tie the knot, it's not only a marriage -- it's a chance for a show of strength that nobody in Sanaa can ignore.
- By Adam BaronAdam Baron is a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He was based in Yemen from 2011 to 2014.
SANAA, Yemen — Generally speaking, it’s hard to imagine anything more mind-numbing than watching a bunch of people discuss how they’re going to hand out wedding invitations. But, as I sat at the home of Sheikh Himyar al-Ahmar earlier this month, watching the deputy speaker of Yemen’s parliament and about a dozen others, ranging from fellow tribal leaders to his brothers’ office staff, fiercely debate the intricacies of how to handle that very task, I was fascinated to the point of embarrassment.
The discussions focused on which guests would have their invitations delivered personally, and who would ultimately give them to whom. But it wasn’t the topic itself as much as the prominence of those involved that interested me. Names of key power brokers were dropped by the minute; sitting silently, I wondered if it was possible to divine clues into something more substantial from this glimpse into the mundane inner-workings of Yemen’s elite.
Six days later, the marriages of two of the sons of Sheikh Himyar’s brother, fellow politician Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, would be marked in a reception attended by thousands of guests. The event contradicted the stereotypes that paint Yemeni society as perpetually on the brink of devolving into a nationwide blood feud, providing a glimpse of the cultural mechanisms that hold it together despite its many fractures
Even among Yemen’s many prominent tribal families, the Ahmar clan occupies a special status. Its late patriarch, Sheikh Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar, was arguably the most powerful and respected tribal leader of his generation — popular memory places his influence as second only to that of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, with whom he was allied until the former’s death in 2007. The eldest of the late tribal leader’s 10 sons, Sheikh Sadiq, succeeded him as head of the Hashid tribal confederation, but even among his prominent siblings, Sheikh Hamid often seems to get the bulk of the attention.
His father’s name alone guaranteed Sheikh Hamid prominence since birth. But he has done more than simply coast on his father’s legacy: His business empire is so vast that even activists who accuse him of corruption are users of his cell-phone carrier. And his political prominence is at least partially owed to his willingness to break with the rest of the family: Hamid was the first of his brothers to come out against Saleh, doing so while his father was still alive. His blunt calls for a shakeup earned him the ire of the former president and his allies, who accused the sheikh of simply seeking power for himself. Many Saleh loyalists accused him of orchestrating the Arab Spring-inspired protests that ultimately unseated the longtime Yemeni strongman in 2011.
"If you think Hamid runs things now, wait until you see this wedding," a friend told me a few days prior. His tone may have hinted at his tribal and political issues with the Ahmars, but he did have a point. On some level, a massive celebration was a virtual necessity: In Yemen’s fluid post-Saleh political environment, the wedding was an obvious opportunity for a show of strength.
By the day of the wedding, news of the upcoming nuptials had spread throughout Sanaa. When I walked out my front door on Thursday, my neighbors, noticing that I had donned traditional Yemeni formal wear — that is, a freshly dry-cleaned thobe, an embroidered scarf, a tailored jacket, and a ceremonial dagger — knew immediately where I was heading.
"The Ahmar wedding is today, isn’t it?" the guy who runs the shop next to my house, a staunch supporter of the former president, remarked with a smirk. "Send my regards to Sheikh Sadiq."
His joke went over my head, as I was still catching up on sleep I lost attending the grooms’ samra, a late night reception that was part of a week-long marathon celebration. I’d planned on staying for an hour, but the display of tribal traditions kept me glued to my seat. It was much like the wedding itself — and, for that matter, most social gatherings frequented by Yemeni males — a qat chew. Guests reclined on the low couches that filled the cavernous hall, chatting with those around them as musicians played traditional music.
A crowd of men singing ancient chants in unison heralded the grooms’ arrival; through the rest of the night, guests took turns reciting poetry mixing expressions of merriment with musings on Yemeni politics. I’m pretty sure it was abundantly clear that I was enjoying myself, but the uncle of one of the grooms seated next to me couldn’t seem to shake fears that I wasn’t having a good time. It’s hard to find anyone that takes hospitality as seriously as Yemeni tribesmen.
"What do you think? Honestly, we’ll be glad when this is all over," Sheikh Abdullah Hamid, the older of the remarkably down-to-earth grooms, told me when I briefly checked in on my way out. "You’re coming on Thursday, right?"
I couldn’t help but laugh.
"Do I even have a choice?" I joked. "I’m pretty sure most of Yemen will be there."
Arriving at the gate of the wedding hall with some friends, it seemed like the truth. The most stunning success of the wedding was evident at the entrance — a gun ban was enforced without any major difficulties. At weddings like this, a decent chunk of guests usually show up heavily armed — sheikhs, particularly, tend to travel surrounded by an entourage of AK-47-toting companions.
But barring a handful of exceptions, guests left their weapons and guards at the door. Even the Ahmar brothers were limited to two guards with a single handgun each. One of their cousins, who refused to leave his guards, was forced to welcome guests outside.
The mammoth chamber in the Sanaa Convention Center that housed the reception was three times larger than any of the Yemeni capital’s wedding halls, and it was still packed. There were 9,427 invited guests — including all of parliament, all of the current cabinet, all senior military security officials, and 700 tribal leaders. In total, more than 10,000 people were estimated to have stopped by. The key thing — especially in weddings this high profile — is often just making the appearance.
Eager to get my own appearances made, I moved toward Sheikh Hamid who, despite being mobbed by guests and looking a bit fatigued, noticed me out of the corner of his eye and motioned to his guards to part the crowd. I quickly offered my regards before jumping into the line to congratulate the two grooms, the men of the hour. (Yemeni weddings are ultimately a rather painful ordeal for the grooms, who have to spend hours on their feet greeting an endless procession of well-wishers, the majority of whom they barely even know.)
The brides were absent, celebrating at a separate reception elsewhere. In conservative Yemen, the vast majority of weddings are gender-segregated events. That’s not to say that the brides’ identities were of no consequence — both hailed from prominent tribal families. With the bulk of marriages still arranged in Yemen, they’re often used as an opportunity to cement ties between elites.
Past political or military battles with the Ahmars were no obstacle to receiving a wedding invite. Sheikh Naji al-Shayf, the vociferously pro-Saleh head of the rival Bakil tribal confederation stopped by — out of respect for his age and tribal status, he was one of two tribal leaders granted an exception to the gun ban. I bumped into an official who in a conversation last fall cast the Ahmars, his rivals for decades, as the epitome of everything that’s wrong with Yemeni politics. A number of officers from military units that helped lay siege to the family’s compound in the capital in 2011, during the Ahmars’ clash with the government, made an appearance as well. Meanwhile, soldiers from the recently disbanded Republican Guard, a bulwark of support for Saleh, secured a nearby hilltop.
"Where else would you see
this?" a friend asked after we left, pointing out a few of the more interesting guests. "These people talk shit about the guy constantly, and still, they all show up for his sons’ wedding and wish him the best."
The retention of honor is, of course, a key aim of the traditions that govern Yemen’s tribal system. But what the weddings of the children of prominent Yemenis show is that honor doesn’t inevitably demand the vanquishing of one’s rivals — more often than not, it’s just about being able to save face.
The decision to send invitations far and wide may not be driven solely by gracious intentions — a part of me sees such invitations, and subsequent attendance, as a series of passive aggressive dares, with each side trying to come off the bigger man. But regardless of motivations, it’s hard not to see such cordial gestures as a way to let off steam amidst the country’s fraught politics.
"Say what you want about Yemenis," a sheikh from the rural environs of Sanaa once told me. "But even if we’re fighting a war against someone, we’ll still take a break to go to his son’s wedding."