Yemeni tribes, believed to have emerged during the reign of the kings of Sheba, played an essential role in the politics of southern Arabia. Since the advent of Islam, the tribal allocation in Yemen has consisted of four confederations: Himyar, Hamdan, Madh’hij, and Kinda. The Kinda originate in Hadhramaut, and Himyar’s tribes live in the southern mountainous areas and the central highlands. Two large tribes inhabiting the northern regions (Hashid and Bakil) comprise Hamdan’s confederation, while Madh’hij’s cluster are settled in the eastern regions.
In his book, Tribal Structure in Yemen, Dr Fadl Abu Ghanem states that “these three tribal groups are linked by a common lineage of Sheba, [a descendant of Noah’s son Ham]. Himyar is considered his direct descendant.”
Sheba’s son Kahlan and his off-spring developed Madh’hij and Hamdan. Sheba, founder of the first kingdom bearing his name (3500-1500 BCE), was known for the construction of the ancient Marib Dam.
Throughout Yemen’s history, the tribe has had an influential role in various aspects of social, political, and economic life. It represents an establishment for managing collectively owned natural resources, a military unit, and other dependent individuals and groups. A social order regulates internal and external relationships.
The distribution of power in Yemen’s traditional tribal society has a hierarchical pattern parallel to tribal organisation, with a structure based on politics and economics as well as kinship, according to a study titled The Palace and the Diwan, edited by Adel Mujahid al-Sharjabi.
The organisational structure can be classified at several levels: tribe, clan, tribal confederation, and household. The confederation comprises several tribes, while the tribe consists of several clans; a clan includes some households or families. Within the tribal confederation, the chieftain of chieftains tops the hierarchy. Then come the guarantors, who are responsible for the tribal chieftainship, followed by designated wise men and trustees.
Al-Sharjabi’s study lays out the roles and positions at each level in the Hashid tribe. The chieftain of chieftains, together with the guarantors, form the tribe’s political authority, acting as representatives to the state. They oversee actions and are responsible for concluding or breaking accords with other tribes.
The clan chieftains comprise the tribe’s military elite. They mobilise tribal fighters and their leaders in wars with or against the state. The wise men and trustees are the executive authority of the tribe who collect zakat (alms) and carry out chieftains’ decisions, such as summoning opponents, documenting contracts, and supervising water distribution for irrigation.
This division of tribal roles also applies elsewhere in Yemen, including Raymah, according to Hameed Mahdi al-Dhubaibi, one of the area’s chieftains.
Although the tasks assigned to each role might differ in their details from region to region, there is one constant: people in positions of authority are directly or indirectly chosen by members of their tribes, and only members can hold the position of chieftain.
Social relations in Yemeni tribal society are rooted in the collective. Given the communal ownership of pastures and natural resources, family takes precedence over the individual.
“Tribal chieftains are leaders, not rulers,” al-Sharjabi writes. They derive their status and influence through their competence in conflict resolution and representation of their tribe in meetings, asserting tribal rights and advocating for the disadvantaged among their ranks.
The chieftain in traditional tribal society can be questioned or replaced by the tribe if he is deemed arrogant or despotic.
Custom regulates mediation of disputes within and outside the tribe, and whoever violates it loses his honour, a major disgrace that risks severe punishment.
Tribal custom is based on building consensus and maintaining relationships. Key values include compassion, tolerance, transparency, accountability, solidarity, collective responsibility, and the protection of public interests. Dialogue and the culture of apology are integral to the practice of tribal customs.
“In almost all disputes, a middleman is sought to mediate or arbitrate,” said Dr Najwa Adra, a researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who has been investigating the tribal system and its intricacies in Yemen since the 1980s.
Pointing out that mediators are usually men, she added, “he may be a tribal leader or anyone with a good reputation.”
In her book, Tribal Mediation in Yemen and its Implications to Development, Adra describes the process of mediation with its prominent rules and dynamics:
“To begin the process, disputants turn their daggers over to the mediator. They may also turn in rifles, pistols or, in lesser disputes, watches (women who are not usually armed offer watches, jewellery or cash). With this gesture, known as ’adāla or ’adāl (equivalence), the disputants signal their submission to litigation. The weapons and other valuables are returned at the end of the proceedings.”
Adra adds that the process is largely informal and that anyone can attend, although women meet to discuss the case in a nearby location. Children also play a role, she says. Moving easily between the men’s and women’s gatherings, they provide verbatim accounts of the proceedings to both sides.
Yemen is undergoing a profound, complex transformation.
Later, each family discusses the case separately, and men convey the opinions of their wives, mothers, and sisters to the proceedings the following day. This is the way both women and men contribute to conflict resolution.
“In passing judgement, the arbitrator is expected to follow consensus as well as legal precedent,” Adra explains. Local leaders (sheikhs) or arbitrators archive the records of all disputes that are formally mediated.
The al-Sharjabi study explains the tribe’s position towards the muhamasheen (marginalised by ethnicity) and the mazayna (marginalised by profession) as follows:
“Social relations in Yemen’s traditional tribal society have relied on the position of individuals and groups in terms of ownership of natural resources in general and agricultural land in particular.”
Members of both groups encounter discrimination with regard to marriage. They are prohibited from armed defence of the tribe or participating in decision-making processes. The muhamasheen are also subject to discrimination and exclusion in educational and residential opportunities. Both groups rely on the tribe for protection and their livelihoods.
Portents of Change
Yemen is undergoing a profound, complex transformation that will impact the future of the tribe as a social structure.
As many agricultural areas in Yemen welcomed periods of stability and development, the chauvinism often associated with tribal society gave way to the civil state.
“But the ongoing war in the country has fuelled the spirit of tribalism, which means a return to chauvinism,” said Mounir Talal, a Yemeni historian and adviser to Yemen’s Ministry of Culture.
Dr Abdul Kareem Ghanem, a researcher at the Arabia Felix Center for Studies, takes a more optimistic stance.
“The people’s revolution came when the state weakened and declined,” he said. “That gave the Yemeni tribe a chance to display its values of social cohesion, security, defence of society and cultural preservation.”
This does not negate the challenges facing the tribe, Ghanem added, pointing to regionalism that threatens Yemen’s social fabric.
Still, he has faith in the integrity at the heart of tribal tradition. “Despite the imposition of sectarian identity, the tribe can exert its role in enabling society to overcome crises and offer safe solutions that are embodied in the return of the civil state,” he said.