Understanding how Yemeni tribes function and the role of tribal leaders is crucial to design effective programs to engage them
Analysis: Tribal sheikhs and the war in Yemen
There is a growing interest among donors and western diplomats to explore the role tribal leaders can play to end the war in Yemen. This is a major shift in attitude as, until very recently, there was so much resistance among donors to do any work with Yemeni tribes out of fear it would undermine the "state."
The role of tribal leaders is largely misunderstood among western observers and urban Yemenis alike. Their influence and power are often both oversimplified and exaggerated with assumptions that tribal leaders have absolute control and unchecked authority over their tribes. They are mistakenly described as “rulers,” almost small dictators, who possess absolute power, over isolated territories. Tribesmen are often portrayed as mercenaries who follow their tribal leaders’ orders.
In reality, tribes are egalitarian, not hierarchical, social institutions and as such do not have a command-and-control structure as often assumed. The authority of tribal leaders largely depends on their ability to provide for their tribes. They can influence and persuade but not force their tribesmen to take a certain course. Men from tribes involved in fighting in frontline have chosen to side with Houthis or the government, many times against the will of their tribal leaders.
Understanding how Yemeni tribes function and the role of tribal leaders is crucial to design effective programs to engage them. Overestimating the role of tribal leaders risks coming up with flawed interventions that might do more harm than good. Tribal leaders have much to offer but there are nevertheless major limitations to what they can do. This piece will look into the role of tribal leaders in areas where there is active fighting.
The war's impact on tribal leaders
Across Yemen, tribal leaders’ influence was greatly undermined by the loss of allowances and financial assistance they used to receive form the government in Sana’a and from the Saudis in 2014. Some tribal leaders on both sides have embedded themselves into current patronage networks and have been enriched as a result. However, the majority remained sidelined and are struggling to deal with an increasingly challenging and complex situation that threatens them and their communities.
Five years of war in Yemen has had a heavy impact on tribal leaders. Most fighters on the frontlines on both sides come from tribes and many of them were recruited directly or indirectly by tribal leaders. Tens of thousands of these men have been killed fighting in a seemingly endless war. Tribal leaders are responsible in front of their tribes for the fate of the fighters they recruited. There is also an expectation among tribes that tribal leaders will take care of the families of the dead and arrange medical care for the injured. As a result, there is a strong desire among tribal leaders to end the war. “The tribes have grown tired of fighting. We are bored of this war game that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Tribes on both sides want an end to this and to stop the bleeding of their men,” a tribal leader from Marib said. But ending the war has to happen in a way that leads to lasting peace, address tribal grievances, and ensures that threats to the security and stability of the tribes are eliminated. “Even though tribes want peace, there is a dilemma. Houthis are ideologues and violent. Where they ruled, they disrespected tribal customs and insulted the tribes” the same sheikh said. “Unless they change course, it would be very difficult for the tribes to accept them,” he added.
Negative consequences of the war on tribal leaders are more prominent in Houthi-controlled areas where the rebel group has systematically worked to dismantle the tribal structure and subjugate the tribes. Houthis seek to weaken the tribes because they are aware that strong tribes can be a threat to their reign in the future, after all it was tribal insurgencies that brought an end to the Imamate in 1962. Since they took control of Sana’a, Houthis have brutally suppressed tribal opposition. To break the tribes, they employed heavy handed tactics to humiliate tribal leaders and strip them of their standing within their tribes including abduction, torture, execution, blowing up homes and confiscation of property. Sheikhs who survived that have been largely sidelined as Houthis installed their own network of mushrifeen (supervisors). The Mushrifeen normally come from outside the tribe, mostly from Saada and Hajjah, and now have more power over the tribes than tribal leaders ever did.
When Houthis descended on Amran in early 2014, the first thing they did was capture Al-Khamri, the hometown of the paramount sheikh of Hashid tribe, Sadeq Al-Ahmar, in Amran governorate. They then blew up the home of Al-Ahmar’s family, a symbolic move that Dr. Adel Dashela, a Yemeni political analyst from Amran, believes was a calculated act to demolish the prestige of the tribes and send a strong warning to other tribal leaders who might think of standing in Houthis way. “Tribal leaders would say: If Houthis broke Al-Ahmar’s powerful family, imagine what they could do to us,” Dashila says.
Recruitment of Fighters
Tribal leaders play a key role in mobilizing fighters but the motives and circumstances differ. In the north, where Houthis have established a system akin to a police state, recruited tribal fighters are used to help the Houthis solidify their power. For many tribal leaders, this means the return of the Imamate and the Hashemite dynasty’s rule over Yemen at the expense of the tribes, something tribal leaders don’t want to contribute to willingly. Therefore, the element of forced recruitment in the north is strong. Sheikhs who do not help in recruiting fighters are either sidelined or brutally punished. Incidents of executions of tribal leaders by the Houthis for failing to recruit fighters have been reported in Al-Baydha, Amran, and Ibb governorates. Houthis prop up other loyal figures in the tribes with money and resources to compete with and degrade tribal leaders who do not cooperate to a subordinate status.
The task of recruiting fighters has gradually been assigned to the mushrifeen. Some sheikhs cooperate with the Houthis and recruit fighters indirectly. For example, upon Houthi orders, sheikhs bring a number of children to enroll in “cultural courses.” These courses include a two-month extensive training that usually takes place in remote mountains where they are indoctrinated with Houthi ideology and learn how to fight. “Either they bring the children or it is their head,” says Dashila. As their power fades away, many sheikhs choose to bend to the Houthis to maintain their interests and to avoid Houthis coming after them.
In tribal areas under Yemeni government and allied tribal forces’ control, sheikhs have not lost their status as those under Houthi rule have. They are encouraged and incentivized but not coerced to recruit fighters. Sheikhs and tribesmen are mainly motivated by the desire to defend their homes from Houthi incursion, a fight they deem existential. They want to avoid the fate of tribes under Houthi controlled areas where Houthis stripped sheikhs off the economic power and political influence they used to enjoy for decades and replaced them by Hashemites and Houthi loyalists. They also fear that they will be brutally punished if Houthis take control of their areas. The fate of the Hajour tribe in Hajjah, where Houthis carried out widespread executions and detentions after they squashed a tribal insurgency against them in April 2019, offers a lesson of what that might be like.
At the same time, many tribal leaders came to believe that the conflict has evolved into a draining war of attrition that consumes the tribes. The Saudi-led coalition, which controls military operations in Yemen, has provided resources to the tribes enough to keep fighting but not sufficient to achieve a military victory. Some tribal leaders have grown skeptical that the Saudi-led coalition has true intentions of defeating the Houthis. Many are frustrated by the lack of strategy and the inconsistency in military operations led by the coalition and Yemeni government. Some are dismayed at the frequency of incidents in which pro government tribal fighters are killed in coalition airstrikes. In July, 2015, coalition airstrike targeted a training camp killing 85 government soldiers in Al-Abr, over 100 miles away from the nearest conflict zone. Hundreds were killed and injured in similar strikes since then. Many of the 300 pro government soldiers that were killed in UAE airstrikes in August 2019 near Aden came from tribes. In some cases, these strikes tipped the scale in favor of the Houthis on the battlefield. These incidents created a perception that the Saudi-led coalition, particularly the Emiratis, wants to maintain a military stalemate at the expense of the tribes. “The Saudi-led coalition bombed us every time we made advances in Nihm and Serwah against the Houthis. What do you make of this?!,” a tribal leader from Serwah told the author. In Al-Baydha, tribal leaders recruited fighters, but so far and despite its promises, the Yemeni government has not enlisted them or provided any notable support to help them in their fight against the Houthis. “This has shaken the trust in the government among Al-Baydha Sheikhs,” a tribal leader from Al-Badhya said.
“The coalition and legitimacy [a term used for Hadi’s government] failed us,” is a phrase I heard repeatedly in my conversations with tribal leaders and tribesmen. The Saudi-led coalition and the Yemeni government have also offered little to compensate the families of the tribesmen who were killed or medical support for the injured, which undermines the legitimacy of tribal leaders who recruited them among their tribes. “The coalition wants us to fight without planning or sufficient support. They want send us to our death,” a tribal leader from Marib told the author.
Tribal leaders’ role in de-escalation
De-escalation is embedded in tribal culture.Tribal leaders on both sides strive to maintain friendship and respect to each other despite political differences. That spirit of tolerance is rooted in tribal culture. On frontlines, tribal leaders sometimes successfully negotiate short ceasefires and safe exit for civilians. They have successfully brokered deals that led to the exchange of thousands of prisoners between the Houthis and the government and between the Houthis and local tribes.
Tribal leaders have also prevented backlash after liberating certain areas from the Houthis. For example, When government forces retook the cities of Hareeb in Marib and Bayhan in Shabwa, the commander of the government force who is also a tribal leader, Mufarreh Behebeh, negotiated amnesty for tribal leaders and tribesmen who aided the Houthis in exchange for a commitment from them to not pick up arms against the government in the future.
In Al-Baydha, Marib, Shabwa, and Al-Jawf, tribal leaders have put their tribal conflicts on hold so that they are not exacerbated by the war and to have a unified front against the Houthis. In some cases, this spirit of unity has created an opportunity to resolve long standing tribal feuds. For example, in January 2017, a tribal mediation resolved a complex land dispute and blood feud between Al-Damashiqah and Aal M’aili sub-tribes in Marib. In October 2018, another tribal mediation resolved a blood feud between subtribes in Marib. The mediation was led by tribal leaders from all five main tribes of Marib. Most recently in January 2020, a tribal mediation ended blood feuds between Aal Ba’ais and Aal Hathqain in Marib.
Limitations and Risks of Engagement
Despite what they offer, tribal leaders’ ability to mitigate the war is limited when it comes to negotiating national-level conflicts or conflicts of a political nature in general. Tribal leaders try to avoid being entangled in power struggle among the political elite out of fear it would drag their tribes into violence and threaten the fragile stability the tribes are already struggling to maintain.
The strength of tribal mediation lies in the fact that they are apolitical by nature. Tribal leaders are effective in mediating agreements that lead to prisoner swaps, facilitation of humanitarian assistance, and protection of civilians. They can have valuable contributions to de-escalation and to monitoring ceasefires at the local level. Their incentive is to protect their communities from violence. Because it is largely based on forgiveness, accommodation, compromise, and a win-win approach, tribal mediation can also be effective in post war reconciliation.
The desire among UN and donors to engage tribal leaders might be out of desperation to find alternative ways to de-escalate as the Stockholm agreement did not make any meaningful progress in that respect. However, bringing in tribal leaders as part of a foreign led process such as the UN peace process could risk politicizing tribal mediations. Even worse, it could lead to interfering with and even hijacking current tribal mediations efforts akin to what the Stockholm agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis inadvertently did to prisoner swaps. Sharing his frustration, Sheikh Naji Murait, a tribal leader who was involved in tribal mediations that led to the swapping of over 2,500 prisoners, said his effort to negotiate prisoner exchanges have come to a screeching halt as a result of the Stockholm agreement. Parties to the conflict refused to cooperate with him because they are now committed to exchange prisoners through the UN envoy’s mechanism.
As the issue of engaging tribes is being discussed, it is important to realize that neither the tribal leaders nor the tribes offer a magic bullet. De-escalation remains entirely dependent on the political will of conflict parties and their regional backers to genuinely end the conflict. Tribal leaders don’t have the leverage or power to influence that in a decisive way. If parties to the conflict come to agreement, tribal mediation will fit into that spontaneously without the need for external help. Meanwhile, it is important for the UN Envoy and western diplomats to educate themselves about the tribes and tribal mediation so that they understand the possibilities, limitations and, more importantly, potential risks involved in engaging tribal leaders. Any engagement with tribal leaders will have to be assessed carefully on a case-by-case basis and should be done after informal consultations with tribal leaders.
 For an example of flawed analysis of the role of tribal leaders, see https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/yemens-tribal-system-contributes-deepening-conflict
 Interview with tribal leaders from Marib, Feb. 6, 2020 and Feb. 13, 2020.
 Interview with a tribal leader from Marib, Feb 9, 2020.
 Marieke Brandit, “The War in Yemen, bottom-up: tribal politics in depth and in motion,” The British-Yemen Society Journal, Vol 27, 2019.
 UN Panel of experts report 2020.
 Interview with a journalist from Hajja and a tribesman from Amran, Feb. 6, 2020.
 Interviews with tribal leaders from Marib, Al-Jawf, and Al-Baydha 2018 to 2019.
 Author interview with tribal leaders July 26, 2019, Aug. 21, 2019 and Feb. 9, 2020. See Also UN panel of experts report January 2020 and https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/saudi-led-coalition-accused-targeting-allied-yemeni-troops-bid-extend-war
 Interview with tribal leader from Serwah, September 2019.
 Interview with tribal leader from Baydha, Feb 8, 2020.
 Interview with tribal leader Aug. 21, 2019.
 Interviews with tribal leaders and tribesmen from Marib, Al-Jawf in January, February, 2020.
 “Tribal arbitration ends 40 year dispute between two tribes in Marib,” Yemen Monitor, Jan. 19, 2017 http://www.yemenmonitor.com/Details/ArtMID/908/ArticleID/15249/%D8%AD%D9%83%D9%85-%D9%82%D8%A8%D9%84%D9%8A-
 Marib Press, “Enha’a Qadhiyat tha’ar bain qaba’il fi Marib hadathat aam 1974,” [Ending a blood feud between tribes in Marib that started in 1974,” Oct. 28, 2018.
 Reported by a tribal leader from Al-Jedaan and another tribesman the author interviewed, Jan. 21, 2020.