The Tribes of Yemen: An Asset or Impediment to Stability? Part One

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 1

Members of the Hashid Tribe in Yemen.

“The tribes are Yemen and Yemen is the tribes,” is a saying that is often repeated by Yemenis from the north central highlands where the tribe and tribal life are most dominant. [1] In the wake of the “underwear bomber” and the “toner bombs,” Yemen has been the subject of intense and often simplistic media coverage. Newspapers and cable news networks have frequently described much of Yemen as a lawless patchwork of competing tribes. The headlines and erroneous descriptions lack real understanding of Yemen’s intricate social and cultural history. In much of Yemen, tribal affiliations and the complex social, cultural and legal structures that underpin tribal life define and shape families, communities and even regions. While parts of Yemen are not subject to the full control of the state, most are far from lawless. In many of these areas, it is the tribe and tribal government that predominate, just as they have for hundreds of years.

As the Yemeni government and the United States intensify their efforts to combat suspected al-Qaeda operatives in primarily tribal areas like Shabwa, Abyan and Ma’rib, it is essential that these efforts do not alienate and/or isolate potential tribal allies. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) attempts to enmesh itself within Yemen’s tribal matrix will be more successful if the Yemeni regime and its backers ignore the country’s tribal politics and history. The U.S.-led December 2009 attacks on suspected al-Qaeda encampments in Abyan and Arhab as well as the failed May 2010 attack that led to the death of Shaykh Shabwani in Ma’rib highlight the dangers of ignoring the tribal aspects of Yemeni society. [2] The attacks inflamed tribe vs. state tensions and acted as recruitment tools for AQAP and other Salafist-inspired groups. While the centrality and power of the tribes may be waning in some parts of Yemen, tribal identity and the kinship ties and allegiances that make up a Yemeni’s identity remain paramount for many. Understanding how Yemen’s tribes contribute to Yemeni society is a prerequisite to ascertaining how AQAP can or could expand its influence in Yemen.

Tribes and Non-State Government

The term “tribe” (qabila in Arabic), is not easily defined but it is helpful to note that the verb from which the word is derived can mean to accept or to give a friendly reception. The idea of acceptance and the protection and honor of one’s guests and allies continues to inform much of what it means to be a tribesman (qabili) in Yemen. Use of the term “tribe” in English often leads to an oversimplification of what actually constitutes a tribe. Every tribe is made up of a complex network of families and clans that are knitted together by shared lineages, customs and alliances. The families and clans that belong to a particular tribe are further bound by shared traditions of government and law which regulate both inter-tribal and extra-tribal relations.

Yemen’s tribes have a long and varied history of self governance that, like the written history of states, is characterized by periods of both enlightened and tyrannical rule. Some tribes developed highly efficient systems of delegatory government while others developed forms of government that were less well organized and more reliant on individual leaders. The traditions of government that developed were often dictated by the terrain and the customs of its inhabitants. For example, the tribes of the Razih Mountains in northwest Yemen have a long history of settled farming that necessitated more elaborate forms of government and tribal law (‘urf). As a result, they have maintained written records of legal cases and disputes that are used to establish precedent in contemporary quarrels. [3] Other tribes such as the Dhu Muhammad, whose territory encompasses the desert and scrublands of parts of al-Jawf and beyond, are unlikely to maintain written records and often have a more fluid system of governance that reflects their traditional dependence on herding and seasonal farming.

While the finer points of tribal governance and tribal law are highly varied, there are certain commonalities. In most parts of northern Yemen as well as some parts of southern Yemen, villages are overseen by headmen or umana. Elders (ayan al-qabila) administer clans that may inhabit a number of nearby villages. At the top is the shaykh who oversees the entire tribe. While this may sound pyramidal, it is not. Traditionally—and in much of Yemen this is still the case—the shaykh’s continued power and his position are dependent on the consent and good will of the elders who themselves depend on the goodwill and continued support of their constituents. While elders and shaykhs are mostly drawn from what are called “shaykhly” families (those families that have long produced the clan or tribe’s leaders), the shaykhs and elders can be replaced if they fail to fulfill their obligations to their constituents. The shaykhs, elders and headmen depend on the respect of those they administer. If the respect for any village, clan or tribal leader is lost, then his ability to negotiate truces, act as arbiter, or rule in cases of tribal law is lost, and, as a consequence, he will be replaced.

Inter-tribal relations and relations within the tribe and its clans and families are regulated by tribal law, which, despite regional differences, draws on a rich corpus of shared traditions and histories. As customary law, tribal law is adaptable, efficient and, in most cases, is preferred by tribesmen to both Shari’a (Islamic law) and constitutional law. In large swathes of Yemen, tribal law remains the primary code of justice. The government of Yemeni President Salih often falls back on tribal law to settle disputes between tribes and between tribes and the government. A recent example of Salih’s reliance on tribal law came when the Abida tribe and its allies threatened war on the government in the wake of Shaykh Shabwani’s death in May 2010 as a result of a botched missile attack.  

The Wings of the Imamate

Many of Yemen’s northern tribes belong to one of two tribal confederations: the Bakil and the Hashid. The Bakil is Yemen’s largest tribal confederation, but it is historically not as well organized as the smaller but far more politically active Hashid confederation. The Hashid, traditionally led by members of the al-Ahmar family, is an influential actor in Yemeni politics. President Salih’s Sanhan tribe belongs to the Hashid confederation. This and Salih’s reliance on tribal politics to consolidate and increase his political reach have ensured the continued prominence of the Hashid in all aspects of Yemeni society, especially in northern Yemen. Both the Hashid and the Bakil have rejected al-Qaeda efforts to recruit their members (Saudi Gazette, January 6, 2010).

Throughout much of Yemen’s history, the Hashid and Bakil confederations and the tribes that belong to them have acted as arbiters of power in northern Yemen, and in parts of southern Yemen as well over the last twenty years. The two confederations were often termed the “wings of the Imamate” because of the reliance of the Imam (the hereditary ruler and religious leader of the Zaidi Shiites of northern Yemen) on them to legitimize his rule and most importantly to expel invading forces like the Ottoman Turks in the 17th and early 20th centuries. However, the relationship between the tribes and the state (the Imamate in this case) was usually a balancing act between two powers that always threatened to overwhelm one another. The tribes, acting individually or as a confederation, often rebelled against the state when it was seen to be overreaching its authority, whether by imposing high taxes or infringing upon what was regarded as tribal territory or tribal spheres of influence. This tension between the state and the tribes has long characterized their relations in Yemen. The power of the state, like the power of the tribes and confederations, has waxed and waned. When the Imamate was able to finance a largely independent and loyal army, at times overseen by slaves who were often viewed as being more loyal because of their lack of tribal affiliations, the state was able to extend its reach well beyond the cities. However, the power of the state has never been even close to absolute in Yemen, where the mountainous terrain and the traditions of independence and self-governance have always acted against a strong state. Yemen’s deserts and mountains are still seen by many Yemenis as refuges from a government that is often thought to be corrupt, indifferent and inefficient. AQAP has attempted to exploit this situation by urging the tribes not to cooperate with government forces (Yemen Post, November 3, 2010).

The Salih Regime: The Patronage System and Declining Oil Revenues

Yemeni President Salih differs from many of Yemen’s rulers in that he is a member of the tribesmen class rather than a member of the sayyid class (descendents of the Prophet) from which the Imams were drawn. Perhaps because of his tribal roots, Salih’s rise to and consolidation of power have both been characterized by adept management and use of Yemen’s tribes and tribal alliances (Reuters, August 31, 2009). Salih is said to have a prodigious memory when it comes to familial, clan and tribal connections. Arguably to an even greater extent than the Imams before him, Salih has maintained his grip on power by manipulating Yemen’s tribes. This manipulation has long relied on a patronage system that trades influence, money, jobs and government positions for loyalty. [4] The development of Yemen’s oil industry financed the largess that has allowed Salih to increase the influence and power of his regime. This is not unique in Yemeni history. In the 1600s, Yemen had a monopoly on the export of coffee that generated the revenue needed to finance an extension of state power by way of a resurgent Imamate. However, the end of the coffee monopoly marked the beginning of the end of expanded state control. Yemen and the Salih regime are experiencing a similar decline in state finances as Yemen’s oil production declines. Yemen’s oil exports account for more than 75% of state revenue. Since its peak in 2002, oil production has dropped by 40% and some studies suggest that Yemen’s oil reserves will be depleted by as early as 2017. The drop in revenue has already resulted in a contraction of the once generous patronage system (SABA, December 3, 2010). Shaykhs from less powerful tribes have already seen their benefits cut or eliminated by the regime in its attempt to reduce costs. During a recent trip to Yemen by the author, a number of shaykhs from “minor” tribes bemoaned the fact that the government payments for their bodyguards, most often their sons, had been reduced or eliminated. Others from more powerful tribes complained about the government trying to offer them Korean-made economy cars instead of the Land Cruisers they are accustomed to.

The reduction and in some cases elimination of government handouts has already resulted in increased tension between the state and some tribes. The curtailment of patronage is also seen by many shaykhs and their constituents as an assault on the honor of the tribe and its shaykh. While the Salih regime has long relied on policies that favor some tribes over others, the elimination of state subsidies to the heads of some tribes and not others threatens to cause increased tensions between the tribes themselves. The cuts in government largess are being further exacerbated by rising food costs fueled by global inflation and a devaluing Yemeni Riyal, which lost 30% of its value in 2010.While the cuts in state subsidies have increased tribal tensions, the patronage system itself has long acted as a destabilizing force among the tribes. The shaykhs who are supported by the Salih regime are often able to act independently since they have the financial and at times military backing of the regime. The patronage system has also encouraged many shaykhs to live outside of their constituencies in Sana’a, where they are closer to the seat of power and better able to lobby for funds and jobs.

The Salih regime’s inability to continue to fund its elaborate patronage system has caused it to shift toward more confrontational policies to ensure the authority of the state. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the state has often moved troops into tribal areas, bombed recalcitrant tribes and shut down roads to force tribes to comply and submit to its rule. In a strategy adopted from the British, who carried out punitive bombings preceded by warnings in the protectorates, the Salih regime uses aerial bombings to punish tribes who are largely beyond the reach of its ground forces. This is an ominous shift from a policy that was once focused on largely non-violent co-option in order to maintain power and is certain to further destabilize the country.

*Please see the forthcoming January 27, 2011, issue of Terrorism Monitor for “The Tribes of Yemen: A Threat to Stability or Asset to Unification?” Part Two.


1. A discussion of the problematic term “tribe,” its genesis, use and connotations are well beyond the scope of this article. For the sake of simplicity, the article uses “tribe” to describe the various groups and communities in Yemen that, in many, cases have long histories of association and cooperation. However, it must be noted that most “tribes” in Yemen are far from being monolithic societal structures. In many cases the groups that make up particular tribes, and the clans and families that are the building blocks of the tribes, are fluid with shifting loyalties and agendas that are dictated by local needs and conditions. Clans and families can and do change their tribal affiliations. It must also be noted that while some tribes and clans may have common histories and lineages, that does not mean that the tribe or clan is in anyway a cohesive political entity.
2. For more background on the attacks see: and Andrew McGregor, “Tribal Resistance and al-Qaeda: Suspected U.S. Airstrike Ignites Tribes in Yemen’s Ma’rib Governorate,” Terrorism Monitor, July 16, 2010.
3. See Shelagh Weir, A Tribal Order: Politics and Law in the Mountains of Yemen, University of Texas Press, 2007.
4. See Sarah Phillips, Yemen’s Democracy Experiment in Regional Perspective: Patronage and Pluralized Authoritarianism, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Also note that the Government of Saudi Arabia has a long history of keeping many of Yemen’s most powerful shaykhs on its payroll, notably the heads of the al-Ahmar family.