Discussion with Al-Dawsari: Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen

Part I of II
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Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni woman working in Washington DC with Partners for Democratic change, wrote a research paper about Yemeni tribes. In Al-Dawsari's opinion, tribes are an indispensable stability agent in Yemeni society. Her paper was published by Carnegie Endowment center for International Peace and her article can be found here.

Al-Dawsari begins her paper by stating that;

"The role of tribes in Yemen is often overlooked or misrepresented in Western and sometimes Arab media and policy analyses alike. The common wisdom often holds that Yemen is a lawless country where tribes, defined as small political units, have resisted the presence and extension of the state into their territories. These tribes are frequently described as “fiercely independent” to signify their aversion to the state and are often said to prevent the development of state institutions in their territories. It is often argued that the state is weak because the tribes resist it. Contrary to this traditional assumption, the strong presence of tribes in Yemen is due to the corruption and weakness of the state institutions there. The tribes in Yemen provide social order outside the formal system. Tribes and tribal law act, in the words of political scientist Daniel Corstange, as “second-best substitutes for an absent or weak state.” People approve of the tribes because they provide basic rule of law in the form of conflict resolution and regulation".
Here is more on Al-Dawsari and Yemeni Tribes.

Question: You recognize that some sheikhs were “corrupt” and “traded the needs of their people for political influence”. Would you describe the northern influential tribes as “principled”? 

Answer: I think there is a great deal of stereotyping and misunderstanding of tribes in the both mainstream media and “intellectual” analysis. I think the description of “northern influential tribes” is misguiding. What we had over the past 35 years is a patronage network of individuals including tribal sheikhs who utilized their influence and status in exchange of some incentives from the former regime. The vast majority of tribal people in the Northern areas remain marginalized and the tribal areas remain underserved and cursed with tribal conflicts.

The notion of tribe is also changing. The tribe as a social unit has been dramatically disintegrating and the systems and structures that kept the tribes strong for centuries have been increasingly deteriorating over the past two decades. The fact that certain tribal leaders were part of the regime’s patronage network is one of the major reasons behind the deterioration of the tribal structures and systems and hence to increasing tribal conflicts. Tribal leaders no longer have the same influence and control over tribesmen. Unemployed and marginalized youth engage in violence as a means release frustration but also to make money.
I think it is important that we urban elite question our bias against the tribes and try to understand the complex issues that affect tribes and tribal areas and find better answers to the challenges we are facing. The easy simplistic answer will be to blame the “northern tribes”.

Furthermore you mention tribesmen of Marib, Al-Jawf, Shabwa and Al-Bayda as upstanding and are “eager to see legitimate and functioning state institutions in their areas”, do they expect to have a political role in the transitional government or future governments? If yes, does that mean that their sons will have to take over after them? If no, What role do you expect these sheikhs to have? The scenario of a federalism seems less likely to happen now.

Well, the tribal structure is not hierarchal. Sons do not automatically inherit “sheikhs positions” from their fathers. You are recognized as a sheikh only when you prove of help to your community. All that you need is for the community to come to you asking for help in order to be recognized as a sheikh. There is no ceremony or anything of that sort. There are cases in which communities ignored what is supposed to be their “original sheikh” and choose other well respected individuals in their communities to help them resolve problems and conflicts. As a consequence those individuals became recognized as sheikhs. Again people tend to talk about tribes as if they were solid political entities which is not the case. Tribes are rather social entities and the structure is not hierarchal. Moreover, the tribes are disintegrating rapidly which gives room to more conflicts and undermines security.

Men, women, youth, NGOs, political activists, sheikhs, religious leaders and others that I have worked with in tribal areas are eager to take part in the transition and to have a political role in the future, not as tribes but as citizens who live within the geographic boundaries of their country, Yemen. They’ve been marginalized for decades and they see this as opportunity to voice out their needs and influence the decisions that affect them and their country. Tribal people long to see a legitimate government with strong state and rule of law institutions to help address the many complex issues they face in their communities including tribal conflicts and lack of development.

Question: At the moment, there is a dichotomy between the reality of the urban Yemeni citizen and the Yemeni tribal one; in terms of lifestyle, education, goals, etc. How do we bring the two worlds together without compromising the experience of either one?

Answer: I don’t think there is a dichotomy to start with. Tribal people face the same challenges that marginalized rural citizens in Taiz and Hodeidah which are not tribal face whether it’s poor education and health services, poverty, unemployment or other developmental problems. Tribal people have strong tribal identify only because the tribe offered them social security and protection. It is the tribe that have helped prevent and resolve conflicts over resources and services. It is the tribal values that make it an obligation under tribal law for members of the tribe to look after each other. But as I said this is changing. The tribal system cannot offer the services it offered as effectively anymore. There aren’t enough better-off people to look after the poor in their communities especially with increasing poverty and minimal opportunities. The younger generation in tribal areas are facing some kind of identify dilemma. The tribe is not offering them what it offered to their ancestors and at the same time the state is not providing for them.

In my work over the past 8 years I have seen tribal people working very well alongside people from urban areas around issues that concerns everyone in the country including fighting corruption, elections monitoring, women empowerment and promoting the participation of civil society. So I don’t think that there are two worlds. Like citizens across the nation, tribal people suffer from the same inconveniences and aspire for better future. They certainly haven’t expressed any desire to be treated differently based on their “tribal” merits.

Question: In the 21st century, Yemen lags behind the world in many ways. You promote the idea of incorporating tribal law into the formal law system; however, in the past the majority of Yemenis chose to take their issues and solve them in a strictly tribal order. This has, in turn, weakened the formal law system, and to maintain a legitimate exterior, the court system passed the Arbitration law in 1992. While Yemeni tribes have held the country for years, incorporating tribal law into the formal system would encourage tribal tradition to exist in Yemen forever. If Yemen succeeds in raising the literacy rates and providing better economic opportunities to their citizens, dependence on the tribe would decrease. What would happen to the Yemeni judicial system? Are you suggesting to preserve tribalism in Yemen? Some may argue that incorporating tribal tradition should only be a temporary compromise.

Answer: First of all, incorporating tribal law into formal law is necessarily a problem. On the contrary I see it as the perfect solution for a country that has very weak state and somehow effective indigenous traditions that governed large areas of the country for centuries. I think the tribal law continued to exist in Yemen because the state was never there so it was sustained out of necessity. My own experience but also research showed that tribal leaders and citizens are eager to see functioning state and rule of law institutions. They are tired of conflict that have pretty much interrupted their lives and undermined every effort to bring development to their areas. But the big obstacle is that there was never a political will to build state institutions. I think the absence of that political will rather than the tribes is the reason behind the weakness of state institutions.

Secondly, I think people mix between tribal law or tribal conflict resolution systems and negative practices that some tribal people have done in the past including kidnapping and road blockage. These practices are in fact considered “black shame” in the tribal law. Corruption and patronage that have governed Yemen over the past 35 years have led to these practices. But tribal law in its true essence has over the centuries prevented and resolved community conflicts. It has helped contained conflicts that would have otherwise escalated and caused regional wars in the country.

Incorporating the tribal law into the rule of law system does not mean that it will substitute it. It means that it will complement it. Let’s face it. We will probably not see functioning rule of law institutions in Yemen for the next decade. It is a long term process. What is the alternative? And wait a minute? Why do we have to give up indigenous traditions that have worked for Yemenis for centuries? The most important thing in my opinion is that this should be done with a strong commitment to building state institutions. Almost all the tribal people I worked with and talked indicated that they want to see functioning state institutions. Check the research that Partners Yemen did in 2011 or the previous one that was conducted by NDI in 2006 on this issue. So I think that commitment will not be an issue as long as the process is transparent and credible. The West is moving into the direction of community mediation and conflict resolution processes to help reduce pressure on formal court system. You know what? We have that right here at home tested and been working for people for centuries so let’s take pride in what we have and use it to make this transition a success.

End of Part I