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Understanding the Yemeni crisis : the transformation of tribal roles in recent decades

Lackner, Helen

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Helen Lackner


Tribes are a fundamental element of Yemen’s social fabric and therefore important in understanding the various levels of conflict in the country. They are vastly misunderstood, the term ‘tribe’ is often used in an anti-historical way, ignoring the changes which have taken place over the decades, within tribes and in their relations with others. Not only misunderstood, but also subject to multiple prejudices which caricature and generalise on the basis of selected characteristics about individual tribes. Disparaging and indeed, insulting statements about tribes can be found with great ease in the media, even in academia and among educated people. Most of us involved in the region will certainly have experienced them on an almost daily basis. In particular urban people tend to despise tribesmen and use the word bedu to disparage both tribespeople and nomads. Among others, Corstange presents an excellent summary of these prejudices: “in the Yemeni context… the tribesmen are often stylized as uneducated, backward, ignorant, uncultured, tradition-bound, irrational, uncivilized and violent. These views are often strongest among city- dwellers, the educated elite, and those who strongly oppose the current governing regime in Yemen, which is associated with tribalism and tribal traditions. Unflattering jokes abound about the ignorance and stupidity of tribesmen, and the epithet ‘tribal’ is not infrequently used as a synonym for ‘backward’. Other than demystification, there are many reasons why tribes and their changed nature and relationship to other social groups in Yemen are very relevant to the country’s present and future. Here are just two examples: - One outcome of the transition process which started in 2011 is that the country should become a federal state of six regions: should tribal allegiances be a relevant consideration in the definition of these regions’ borders? Can they be? Is the tribal factor more or less relevant to this issue than water basins? - Among those prosecuting the current war, it was assumed that the allegiance of tribesmen could be ensured by the provision of incentives (as had been done during the civil war in the Yemen Arab Republic in the 1960s), but this has clearly not been the case. The military balance in the war over the past year has certainly been influenced by the allegiances of tribes on different fronts, but incentives have been unable to tip it. Had things been different, the coalition forces would have reached San‘a months ago. This paper addresses a set of related aspects of this problematic. - First I briefly examine some of the debate around the nature of tribes and the wide range of phenomena described as tribal. This will clarify some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings about Yemen in general and its tribes in particular. - This is followed by a description of Yemen’s social structure at the time of the revolutions of the 1960s. This period is indicative of the situation for the preceding century or so. While I do not suggest for a moment that Yemeni society prior to this time was static or enjoying the ‘eternal present’ encountered in much traditional anthropological literature, this period roughly represents a state of affairs prior to the significant social, political and economic transformations which later fundamentally redesigned its social structure. - The third part addresses changes in social structures since the 1970s, and the way in which these structures have fully developed since unification in 1990 as a result of modifications in the nature of the country’s economic base. I will discuss the tensions which have arisen as a result, particularly through the emergence of a single elite combining military, economic and political power, and its impact on tribal relations and the nature of the tribe as a concept. - Finally, I will assess the relevance of these changes in social formations on two of today’s urgent issues, the role of political parties and the importance of jihadism. I conclude with some remarks on the extent to which the emerging social forces could contribute to a solution of the country’s current deep crisis.


Lackner, H. (2016). Understanding the Yemeni crisis : the transformation of tribal roles in recent decades

Working Paper Type Working Paper
Publication Date 2016
Deposit Date Aug 16, 2016
Publicly Available Date Aug 16, 2016
Series Title Durham Middle East Papers; Sir William Luce Fellowship Paper
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