Yemen’s sheikhs balance power with legitimacy
By Abigail Fielding-Smith
March 14 2011
Yemeni pro-government tribesmen hold Yemenís national flags and posters of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh
Above a widescreen TV in the opulent Sana’a residence of Sheikh Ali Saleh al-Ashwal is a clay model of the village of which he is the tribal leader, in the water-scarce district of Amran, north of the capital.
Unlike his uncle, who led the 15,000-strong tribe before him, Mr Ashwal has his main residence in Sana’a, not in the village, although he visits it regularly. “One leg is here and one leg is there,” he says. “Time changes the role of the sheikh.”
Yemen’s heavily armed tribes have a sizeable influence on society, and sheikhs such as Mr Ashwal are seen as central to resolving the current crisis, in which a growing popular protest movement is calling for an end to the 32-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh.
The president, who hails from one of the most powerful tribal confederations, the Hashid, built his power on alliances with tribal sheikhs. In recent weeks, he – and opportunistic opposition figures – have been meeting tribal leaders to try to secure their support.
Whether Mr Saleh, stays or goes and whether the situation descends further into violence or not, is thought to depend largely on sheikhs such as Mr Ashwal. But analysts say tribal leaders no longer have the control over their people they once wielded.
“Tribal governance used to work well because people were just farmers,” says Nadwa al-Dawsari, an expert in tribal conflict. “There was no Saudi or [Yemeni] government giving sheikhs money, no oil companies, no technology, no elections.”
Now, she says, there is a bulging youth population that has less understanding and respect for tribal values, decreasing resources, urbanisation and some sheikhs live in the capital instead of their villages. “The system is disintegrating and is increasingly unable to handle land disputes and revenge killings.”
One of the factors undermining tribal authority during the past thirty years has been the flow of oil wealth, which has helped create an urbanised tribal elite distant from the concerns of rural tribesmen.
Tribal leaders’ authority is traditionally derived from the wisdom with which they arbitrate disputes. The country is still riven by tribal quarrels and blood feuds revolving around land, water, women or honour, and sometimes all four, which can last decades. According to Ahmed Ismail Mohammed Abu Houria, a tribal leader since 1962, the chief role of the sheikh is to “act as judge or mediator among the tribesmen with each other”.
Sitting in his mafraj, or sitting room, in Sana’a, Mr Abu Houria explains the principles of tribal justice and conflict mediation techniques, as assistants show him a verdict of a recent dispute. It is written in calligraphy on sheets of paper taped together that, when unfolded, stretch the length of the room.
“It is conventional wisdom inherited from our grandfathers,” says Mr Abu Houria. “Even if someone is killed from your tribe you shouldn’t take revenge in markets, mosques, highways and main cities.”
A shift in emphasis in the role of a sheikh to someone who accesses and distributes resources is a recent phenomenon. Ms Dawsari says the ability to mediate conflicts is still at the core of sheikhs’ legitimacy.
Mr Ashwal’s response to being asked about the role of the sheikh is to say: “He is the representative of the whole tribe in front of the official places.”
Mr Ashwal, who keeps a building for villagers to stay in when they come to Sana’a, says he has effected changes in his village since becoming sheikh. “Before, there was one classroom; now, two secondary schools have been built, one for girls, one for boys, and four elementary schools.”
As he speaks, he receives a phone call from a tribesman needing money to get married, and simply sends a son out to pick up the cash.
Mr Ashwal seems well connected with his community. But, according to Sarah Phillips, a Yemen expert at Sydney university, there is a pattern, associated with President Saleh, whereby sheikhs derive wealth and power from the centre – and this has weakened their authority.
“By inducing so many of the country’s tribal sheikhs into his cash-based networks, Saleh has risked undermining their authority vis a vis their tribesmen,” says Dr Phillips. “Now, as the president’s back is pressed more closely to the wall, the sheikhs may be less capable of delivering loyal tribesmen on demand.”Source: The Financial Times