Yemen: not on the verge of collapse
Sept The Republic of Yemen is often spoken of in the press and in policy circles as a society on the verge of collapse (last year it was "another Somalia"), based largely on two claims, the first being the supposed weakness of its state, the other the supposed lawlessness of its tribal population that makes ...
The Republic of Yemen is often spoken of in the press and in policy circles as a society on the verge of collapse (last year it was "another Somalia"), based largely on two claims, the first being the supposed weakness of its state, the other the supposed lawlessness of its tribal population that makes up the majority ethnic group (about seventy-five percent are settled agriculturalists in the mountains and another five per cent, nomadic Bedouin in the eastern desert). And supposedly being on the verge of collapse, Yemen is seen as vulnerable to take-over by terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda that threaten America’s and the region’s security. Let us consider how tribe and state, law and conflict operate in Yemen that few analysts seem to grasp when they make these pronouncements.
History may provide some perspective. There has been a state or dawlah in Yemen for thousands of years, whether the Sabaean state that built Marib Dam and was the reputed homeland of the Queen of Sheba, or the Islamic state created shortly after the advent of Islam which lasted for a thousand years, or the republican state that came into being in 1962 and has lasted until the present day, despite two bitter civil wars. To be sure, the state has waxed and waned in power and contracted or expanded in territory during this history, and it has faced formidable outside opponents, beginning with the Romans and most recently with al-Qaeda, but it has never fully collapsed or disappeared from the scene. It is unlikely to do so in the present in spite of arguments that the current regime is at a tipping point and about to fall apart because of an unprecedented number of seemingly intractable problems facing it (an ever weakening economy, unsustainable water consumption, projected diminished oil reserves, conflicts between the state and certain regional populations, rampant corruption, and let us not forget al-Qaeda).
To those who would say to me, "How do you know it is not at a tipping point?" I can only respond with, "How do you know that it is?" and remind ourselves of the longue durée of Yemeni history.
But what does it mean to be a "weak state" in contemporary Yemen? Again, some historical perspective is helpful, though thankfully we need not go back three thousand years. When the current president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, came to power in 1978 I remember people taking bets in the country’s expatriate community that he would not last a year. Not only has he expanded his own personal power, he has managed to consolidate and broaden the state’s presence in the country. In 1978, there were few military checkpoints along Yemen’s highways; I could go from the capital, Sana’a, to the western town of Marib and be stopped at most two times along the way by state authorities. Now there are over a dozen such stops and identity papers are checked. Military outposts can be seen on most mountain-tops. And there is an administrative system doing the state’s business in even the most far-flung regions of the county. Paved roads, state-run or sponsored schools, clinics, and hospitals represent a different aspect of state power and legitimacy, and perhaps they are more effective in that they penetrate into the everyday lives of people. Usually none of this context is taken into account when the western press glibly asserts that the state can barely control the capital, let alone the hinterlands beyond it.
The power of the tribes in Yemen is crucial to understanding the state and its ability (or not) to operate. Historically the Yemeni state has worked with tribal groups to secure the nation’s territory (the two most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid and the Bakil, were called the "wings" of the imam, the former king of Yemen, because he would call on them rather than a standing army to defend the borders; the same is true today when the state calls on loyal tribes to help fight Huthi rebels in the north of the country). As a way of bringing the southern part of the country to heal under the central state after the second civil war in 1994, the current regime embarked upon a tribalization of that part of the country (just as the socialists in the same part of the country had repressed, often brutally, the presence of the tribes because they were thought to be anti-progressive or traditionalists). It is also important to bear in mind that Yemen’s army is composed mostly of tribesmen who depend on wages, meager though they be, for their families, and that tribesmen make up a large part of the economy in the towns (both informal and formal), and that the majority of elected members to parliament are tribal sheikhs.
To us, this symbiosis of tribe and state may seem puzzling, for the two are often seen to be antithetical to each other: tribes value honor and autonomy and the state is perceived as threatening to the integrity of both (in the case of autonomy this may be obvious; in the case of honor the cultural logic is that anyone or anything that is more powerful than you has the potential of putting you in a compromised or potentially dishonorable position). Even more surprising is the notion that the state should depend on the tribes in some areas to keep the peace and maintain order, for it is presumed that tribes are inherently "lawless" and feud-addicted.
In fact, there are three distinct systems of law in the country, tribal law or curf (which has its own code as well as its own legal processes for resolving disputes), Shariah, and civil law. Conflicts are usually not settled by coercion but by persuasion and the rule of law. The three legal systems co-exist without much competition with each other (as long as long as tribal and civil laws are compatible with the Shariah), and they operate more or less in their own spheres. And so when a state official says, "That is a tribal affair," he is not necessarily shirking responsibility for dealing with the conflict but acknowledging the relative autonomy of the tribes as well as their own elaborate rules for adjudicating disputes on which the state should not encroach. It is rather like the U.S. government acknowledging state’s rights or state authority in place of federal law. Of course, problems can arise in the tribal system, and when they do one or the other legal system can be appealed to for a solution. And so it is hard to know what someone means when they assert that "there is no rule of law" in the largely tribal regions of the country.
It is my hope that by viewing some current events in Yemen with this history and these contexts in mind, we may arrive at more nuanced and more accurate understandings of them.
Dr. Steve C. Caton is Professor of Contemporary Arab Studies in the Department
of Anthropology at Harvard University.
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