Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Yemen: Patronage and tribes

Nadwa al-Dawsari has produced an excellent report on the tribal system for the Carnegie Endowment, Tribal Governance and Stability in Yemen*. She shows how, in the absence of an effective state, tribes look after their own affairs and how when the government moved out of parts of Yemen in 2011 tribes co-operated to cope. They also have acted as mediators to prevent disputes escalating in areas contested by Al-Huthi and Islah-backed tribes. She also throws new light on how tribal actors, not the armed forces, prevented militants from Ansar al-Shariah seizing large parts of Rada'a earlier this year and then negotiated a settlement. It appears that Tariq al-Dhabi, the leader, lost his life when he lost the protection of the tribes after he breached the agreement.

The Saleh system developed over 33 years was based on co-opting local leaders – usually tribal – and providing them in exchange for support and loyalty with access to government resources, whether in the form, of cash, jobs, contracts or favours. Many tribal leaders received direct subsidies. It was all fed by oil income, at least until recently. Al-Dawsari describes how some tribal leaders, brought into the patronage system, have moved to Sana'a to play in national politics and business but cut themselves off from tribal roots, undermining their standing – and, when the money runs out, their influence. The 2012 budget allocated YR13 billion for payments to tribal shaikhs – although the prime minister says the figure will be cut drastically.

There havem been demonstrations calling for an end to these payments. He may find this difficult to implement. Al-Dawsari's conclusion is addressed to the international community. “Evidence about the role performed by tribes in Yemen challenges two major assumptions: that Yemen is a lawless country and that tribes and the tribal system undermine stability and state building. On the contrary, in a country like Yemen, where the state is weak, the tribal system — especially tribal conflict resolution mechanisms — can help promote national reconciliation, stability, and even state building. As the United Nations and the international community try to help Yemen in its critical transition and state-building process, policymakers and practitioners need to explore ways in which the traditional system can complement and strengthen this process.”

What she does not discuss is how the patronage system will evolve under President Abd al-Rab Mansour Hadi and perhaps eventually a more democratic regime. For the moment, the state subsidies will continue to flow, as will those from Saudi Arabia as well as people such as Sadiq and Hamid al-Ahmar, who have their own sources and networks of patronage.

For more news and expert analysis about Yemen, please see Yemen Focus.

© 2012 Menas Associates

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