By Sudarsan Raghavan, Saturday, September 3, 2011
SANAA, Yemen — Hamid al-Ahmar is not a member of Yemen’s ruling party or its military. He holds no formal position in its opposition movement. Nor can he claim the authority of a religious leader.
Yet Ahmar is anything but a mere observer in the seven-month-old populist uprising to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. He is a billionaire, a scion of the country’s most powerful tribal family, and he is using his money and power to assert a role in a new Yemen.
He has bankrolled protest marches in 10 provinces, providing everything from microphones to transportation. He commands tens of thousands of tribesmen, including a heavily armed contingent that guards him day and night. His tribe’s clout has bought him access and influence; now it is providing Ahmar with a power base, one that has brought fresh energy to the revolution but has also spawned more violence and chaos.
“I am living with this revolution, day by day, hour by hour,” the 43-year-old said in an interview inside his opulent mansion.
Perhaps more than in any other country in the Middle East, the bonds of the vast extended families known as tribes occupy a central role in Yemen, a country ruled by two rival groupings, the Bakeel and the more powerful Hashid.
But Yemen is hardly alone in the region being riven by tribal loyalties; tribes are a factor in Libya, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and across the Persian Gulf. In some ways, they play a role just as important as the government, military, clerics and the opposition, injecting another unpredictable dynamic into the turbulence of the Arab Spring.
The Ahmars are blue bloods in Yemen’s tribal society.
Hamid al-Ahmar’s late father, Abdullah, headed the Hashid tribal federation, to which Saleh’s tribe also belonged. Abdullah al-Ahmar also headed the country’s largest opposition party, Islah, and served as speaker of parliament. Hamid’s elder brother now heads the Hashid federation.
In Yemen, tribes make up the central social unit, and their power has only grown in recent years, while Yemen’s central government has proven incapable of controlling much of the country. Most Yemenis depend on their tribes for jobs and other services.
To help maintain his power during more than three decades of rule, Saleh turned again and again to the Ahmars, in a symbiotic relationship not unlike his bond to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, the country’s most powerful military leader — one in which all parties chose to overlook their differences.
In return for help from the Ahmars and Mohsen, Saleh gave them wide latitude to “run their affairs with informal armies, courts and economic empires” and made “direct payments from the treasury to the . . . tribal and military constituencies,” thenU.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski wrote in a 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
This year, following the deaths of 52 protesters by snipers loyal to Saleh, the Ahmar clan and Mohsen broke with the president and openly expressed support for the uprising.
‘A fiery combination’
As a child, Hamid al-Ahmar played with Saleh’s sons and nephews. In high school, Ahmar started a tourism company, using family money. He earned an economics degree at Sanaa University and spent two summers in England, where he studied English. He also studied the language in the San Francisco Bay area for four months while visiting one of his nine brothers, Sadiq, who was training to become a pilot.