Yemen is going through an unprecedented period of conflict with the specter of famine looming on the horizon. The conflict will soon enter its seventh year, and the warring parties are still mobilizing their strength for new confrontations, such as the Houthi attack on Marib Governorate. Signs of a comprehensive peace agreement, through consultations and diplomatic efforts, are few and far between.
As Yemen is still a tribal society, and tribal customs still dominate its members, this paper examines tribal customs regarding conflicts between tribes as a path to peace in Yemen and a tool for reconciliation in the current conflict. To this end, it is necessary to first establish simple procedural definitions of the tribe, then define the reality of the state in Yemen and the current conflict, as far as this paper allows.
Tribalism is the basic social structure in Yemen and underpins common Yemeni social values that vary somewhat from one geographical area to another. In terms of structure, in contrast to the hierarchical modern state based on the spirit of the nation and the public interest, the distribution of responsibilities is collective in the tribe and the principle of solidarity is based on blood kinship. In addition, tribalism contains traditional laws, restrictions, and moral authority, in contrast to the judicial laws and institutional tools of the state. Tribalism is not entirely reinforced by the religious establishment, as the laws and regulations of tribal custom and the Sharia are in many cases in conflict.
The outbreak of the September 26, 1962 revolution was a historical break in terms of the superstructure that oversees Yemeni affairs and created the modern state, distinct from the previous Imamate system or the sultanates and chiefdoms. Nevertheless, the republic, according to its social and ideological vision, struggled to impose itself as a historical fact, colliding with social foundations and pre-state structures such as the tribes. State building was fragile, stumbling, and accompanied by bloodshed, corruption, and mismanagement.
The current conflict is a civil war with many causes but is mainly the struggle for political power and the desire to seize wealth. The most obvious is the Houthi’s attempt to impose its views, using weapons, in violation of the national consensus and dialogue. The war, which has been going on for nearly seven years, is a political conflict resulting from the incompatibility of multiple plans, one of which is the plan to change the structure of the state and the nature of its system to a federal one following “The Comprehensive National Dialogue”. Yemen was previously a centralized state, which was shaken by the uprisings of 2011−2012 that gave way to the emergence of various opposition movements, such as the Zaidi revivalist movement (Houthis), which feeds on religious beliefs and historical practices in the far north, as well as the separatist movement in the south, which feeds on the consequences of the 1994 war and feelings of injustice and exclusion.
The local political, social, and ideological factors are inseparable from the regional powers, which have seen in this fragile and fractured country a suitable field to achieve their goals and pursue their proxy conflict. The entire region is engaged in a conflict for influence between regional axes: Saudi-Emirati, on the one hand, and the Iranian “Axis of Resistance” on the other. The Iranian-Qatari rapprochement and a Turkish-Qatari axis have added complexity to the conflict. Nevertheless, the tools of the conflict in the region are the pre-state powers – largely tribes.
After the bloody conflict that erupted in July 2014, the state collapsed and the country was practically divided into two parts: one controlled by the Houthis, located primarily on the northern and western side of the mountainous areas and extending towards part of the western coasts; and the rest controlled, nominally, by the internationally recognized government, but which is in practice under the control of several armed groups that also owe allegiance to external parties. Recently, the Ministry of Planning in the internationally recognized Yemeni government published a brief report indicating that the proportion of the population in both areas is equal, though this is according to population estimates and not an official census.
In general, Yemen is under the control of the “military coalition” forces, which control its seaports and airspace within the framework of their intervention to support the internationally recognized government. The conflict has, however, led to the collapse of the educational and health systems, and food insecurity has reached a critical stage. The social fabric has also been subjected to erosion from hostile propaganda discourse, sectarian incitement, and regional strife, which have exhumed the bloody and coercive history of the country.
There have been many diplomatic efforts, under the auspices of the United Nations, to reach a political solution to the Yemeni crisis, which have remained unsuccessful. The United States of America has also recently, under the Biden administration, engaged in diplomatic efforts to put an end to the war in Yemen, but these efforts have clashed with the intransigence of the warring parties and the intensification of battles in Ma’rib Governorate. After several rounds of consultations in previous years, a partial agreement was reached regarding the ports of Hodeidah, but this agreement failed due to intransigence and the unilateral arbitrary interpretation of its loose texts, as well as violations and abuses that the United Nations was unable to control.
Given the failure of a political solution and the increasing pace of the war and its bloody and destructive outcomes, there have been some tribal efforts to address some of the effects of the war, including the release of some detainees, the exchange of prisoners, the removal of the bodies of the dead, and the formation of a guarantor network for the movement of individuals, traffic, and goods in part, particularly through a secondary road that connects Sana’a with Ma’rib, passing through Al-Bayda city, or through secondary roads linking the divided areas of Taiz between the influence of the internationally recognized government and the Houthis. These steps of a tribal nature raise curiosity in examining the possibility of tribal measures to reach a political solution.
Our vision of tribal treatments can be replaced in the context of the tribal movement, though this must bear in mind that tribalism has never been a neutral party nor an isolated entity. Rather it affects and has been affected by parties, ideologies, and local and regional economic and political interests. The tribes have been a field of battle for political partisanship over the years, as well as a human reservoir of wars and internal conflicts. Furthermore, the mentality of tribalism has often given way to a fanatic framework rather than working in the collective interest.
In the words of Abdullah Al-Arawi, the tribe is synonymous with freedom, yet based on the Yemeni historical experience it is also synonymous with rebellion. While tribes have hastened to support rebellions against abuses of power, they have also failed to maintain national peace. Tribalism is not a uniform social parameter in all parts of Yemen due to differences in structure and role, based on geography and economic activity. It may be solid and cohesive in one place (such as the western mountainous highlands) while being weak and floating in another place (such as the plains and Tihama).
Tribal reconciliation mechanisms, their interventions to settle disputes, are not based on a written code but rather on tribal custom and depend on personal assessments and temporary settlements according to varying social demands. Reconciliation mechanisms are not based on a common-law and do not have a sacred religious character nor the authority of the law. It has been said that tribal reconciliation − contrary to the term − works only to defer the problem, not to end it, and if tribal solutions are not possible, the litigants turn to state courts instead. Furthermore, tribal conflict resolution is limited and takes place within the boundaries of existing tribal conflicts in a rural tribal society. Thus, they are generally geographically limited conflicts, such as disputes over land or pastoral rights, accidental aggression, rivalries in the market, or quarrels between families.
We can say that the Yemeni character is nourished by a contradictory culture between idealistic and pragmatic claims. Hence, tribal customs impose (and presume) limitations on violence and put off the desire for revenge, while allocating special sanctity to public areas of interest, such as markets, and necessitating cooperation between opponents within a narrow utilitarian framework. Hence, the enmity resulting from disputes and conflicts remains latent and liable to explode at any moment.
Today, ideal tribal formulas for maintaining social peace are no longer effective and have been subjected to abuse and distortion, and sanctities have been shattered by political motivations. There is a disavowal of fulfilling verbal commitments, which have largely become sarcastic, as with the saying: “the master’s face” (“the master” here refers to al-Houthi), which refers to a guarantor who replaces the “state” and “tribe” alike.
Likewise, we find a contradiction in the rounds of meeting and consultations between Yemenis. As a result of diplomatic pressures, the parties have ostensibly improved their behavior with each other according to formal ideals. Thus, we find ourselves in front of two realities: a diplomatic one of peace and war, and one in which the fighting does not stop. This idealism suggests the ease of concluding an agreement and a political solution, but in fact it causes the parties to shirk their moral obligations − a handshake between antagonists does not mean always peace.
Second, The Realistic Reading
The tribe represents a pre-state social level, while the current conflict in Yemen is primarily a political conflict with significant religious undertones. It is obviously a regional conflict; Saudi Arabia stands at the head of an Arab coalition to support the internationally recognized government, and Iran supports the Houthis. Consequently, the Yemeni conflict exceeds the tribe’s ability to intervene. The tribe had a large margin of intervention when Ali Abdullah Saleh was allied with the Houthis, but after the killing of Saleh the spirit of the tribal leaders and supporters weakened to the point of being subjected to repeated attacks.
There are some facts that should not be neglected. First, the Houthi group moves within an ideological framework that reshapes its followers, thus separating them from their social frameworks and changing their loyalty from tribal or regional to loyalty to the leader of the group. For this reason, the tribe’s margin of influence over its members who are involved with the Houthi group is diminishing.
Second, the tribes in the areas controlled by the Houthis, as a result of the difference in firepower and the difference in organization, live at the mercy of the Houthis and cannot oppose it despite many cases of abuse. The reluctance of independent tribal responses was is caused by the “carrot and stick” policy of the Houthi leaders, who behave as the state and subjugate society using extreme violence.
The Houthi group uses the ongoing war as an excuse to silence opposing voices and accuse them of spying and complicity with the “Aggression” − as they call the Arab coalition forces. For this reason, the Houthis approved a series of measures to restrict the actions of tribesmen under the name of the “tribal honor document”. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the achievements of tribalism and the arrangements that were made by it, such as the exchange or release of prisoners. Such arrangements are commendable and certainly alleviate the suffering of prisoners and detainees (the number of those released in this context exceeded what was accomplished by the Office of the Special Envoy of the United Nations under the Stockholm Agreement).
However, these arrangements are only for those who have great social connections. Those who do not belong to a tribe or have their support remain in prisons and detention centers for many years. Evidence for this is abundant. For example, among the prisoners listed in Security Council Resolution 2216, the family of Muhammad Qahtan was unable to obtain any information about him, while, for example, the family of the former Minister of Defense, Mahmoud al-Subaihi, was able to communicate with him by phone.
It can be said that the tribal path for peace − in a political conflict containing both religious and regional dimensions − is restricted and limited and cannot wholly overcome the level of complexity of the war in Yemen. Nevertheless, tribalism can alleviate the suffering of some people through selective operations, not involving a large number of detainees, and motivated mainly by motives of blood relations accompanied by good intentions.
The establishment of peace in Yemen requires a mediator that is not involved in the war and backed by the ability to pressure local and regional parties involved in the war, which does not apply to the Yemeni tribes. Furthermore, we should rely on the principle of “transitional justice” to address the core problems and prevent the future recurrence of war based on them.
Notes and sources
 – Dr. Ameda Shaalan, A War between Rebellion, Legitimacy, and a Struggle for Power Using Regional Sectarian Tools, Qantara, 2015. Source: qantara, (https://ar.qantara.de/content/%D8%A2%D8%AB%D8%A7%D8%B1- D8%A7%D tshirtD8%AD%D8%B1%D8%A8-%D8%A7%D8%B4%D8%AD%D8%A7% D8%B7%D8%A7%D8%A6% d8% B3% D9% 8A% d8% AC-% d8% A7% D9% 84% d8% A7% d8% AC% d8% AA% D9% 85% d8% A7% d8% B9% D9% 8A-% D8%A7%D8%A7%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%D8%A7%D8%D8%B9%D8,D8%A7%D8%D8%B9%D8,haircut eyes %87%D8%A8%D8%A%D8%AD%D8%B1% D8%A8-%D8%A8%D8%A%D8%B1%D8%A%D8%B1%D8%A%D8%B4%D8%B1%D8%B9 %D8%A%D8%A9)
 – Abdullah Al-Aroui, The Concept of Freedom, The Arab Cultural Center, 2012, pp. 23-26.
– There are many studies on the Yemeni social structure that have established the idea of a geographical division in Yemen. Recent studies question the accuracy of these perceptions, including an article by the French researcher Laurent Bonnefoy: “Contemporary Yemen, a tribal society?” In this, he argues that there is plurality in the Yemeni social reality. (Laurent Bonnefoy, Le Yémen contemporain: une société tribale ?, dans Hosham Dawod (dir.) La constante «Tribu», Variations arabo-musulmanes, https://books.openedition.org/demopolis/243)
 – Abdel Nasser Al Mowadea, The Tribal Military Custom, a study presented within the papers of the Comprehensive National Dialogue Conference, Abdel Nasser Al Mowadea’s Blog, 2016 (http://almuwadea.blogspot.com/2016/05/2016_71.html)
 – Ahmad Al-Tars Al-Arami, The Houthis between Politics, Tribe and Sect, Sana’a Center for Studies, July 14, 2019 (https://sanaacenter.org/files/Houthis_between_politics_and_tribe_and_sect_ar.pdf).
 – ACLED Foundation, The Myth Of Stability: Infighting And Repression In Houthi-Controlled Territoriesm https://acleddata.com/2021/02/09/the-myth-of-stability-infighting-and-repression-in-houthi-controlled-territories/.