Tribesmen voting in al-Ahjur, Central Highlands, 1978

By Elham Manea, The Daily Star, April 6, 2012

February’s presidential election in Yemen by no means marks the end of the country’s troubles. However, the suggestion that the United States host a new arrangement based on decentralized negotiation between tribal and regional leaders is not the way to solve them.

Such a call ignores lessons from Yemen’s past and underestimates the deep changes that have taken place in Yemeni society over the last decades. Although the tribal system continues to operate as the prevalent mode of social organization, it is crucial to recognize that the nature of tribal networks and institutions has changed drastically.

Historically, tribal networks compensated for the state’s lack of capacity. The tribe assumed the role of protector and provider: securing tribal territory, protecting water wells, and resolving conflicts between its members or with other tribes. In many ways, the tribe was the institution of first resort for financial backing and social support in times of crisis. It is perhaps very telling that Aden – where the nuclear family has displaced the tribe as the main social unit – is more affected by poverty than regions that have preserved tribalism, such as Shabwah, Mahra and Al-Dali.

Tribal sheikhs were also once accountable to their constituents: They were elected and could be voted out. Thus, a sheikh was often regarded as a first among equals, rather than an absolute ruler. Custom (Irf) governed the mediation of conflict within or outside the tribe and could not be violated without loss of honor – a distinct disgrace – and threat of severe penalty. (more…)

Community cleaning of cistern in al-Ahjur, 1979; photograph by Daniel Varisco


2010, Volume 19: 1–17.


An international phenomenon that has captured the interest of scholars and international development organizations is a continued tendency to resolve conflict through indigenous methods rather than in state courts (Chirayath et al.; Corrin Care 2000;; UNDP). In Yemen, as in countries as diverse as Kenya and the Solomon Islands, traditional justice is often perceived as familiar, transparent, and participatory. Its focus is reconciliation rather than punishment (Dempsey and Coburn 2010; Dimitrijevic 2006). Specifically in Yemen there is considerable flexibility and adaptability in indigenous tribal procedures and decisions, more so than one usually finds in state justice systems, and decisions are restitutive rather than coercive. Furthermore, indigenous dispute mediation, where fi nes are shared by the entire community, is less costly than the formal legal system. On the other hand, there are concerns that traditional justice may perpetuate social hierarchies by favoring the powerful or discriminating against women (Corrin Care 2000; Kameri-Mbote 2005; Kollapen 2005; Tripp n.d.). In Yemen, as elsewhere, “local strongmen” may co-opt traditional mechanisms by using force in ways that would not have been permitted historically (Dempsey and Coburn 2010). Political scientists worry that resort to traditional justice may undermine state sovereignty.

In this article, I explore these issues as they apply to self-identified tribal communities in Yemen’s Central Highlands through case studies of mediation that I collected during extensive fieldwork between 1978 and 2005 in al-Ahjur. (more…)

Yemen is not a terrorist factory
By Daniel Martin Varisco, Special to CNN, November 8, 2010

Editor’s note: Daniel Martin Varisco is a professor of anthropology at Hofstra University and has visited Yemen over a dozen times for development consulting and research since 1978. He moderates Tabsir, an academic blog on Islam and the Middle East.

(CNN) — Domino theorists love the Middle East. Because of this, a number of media pundits have recently added the little-known country of Yemen as a front in the unsettled aftermath of George W. Bush’s War on Terror.

First came the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, then a protracted war there and in Iraq. Iran is still in the hawkish gun-sights of conservative pundits, but the focus has now shifted to Yemen, a country most Americans could not find on a map. Is Yemen really the terrorist haven we should fear the most?

For the rest of my post on the CNN blog, click here.

Tribes should be social entities not political participants, says al-Dhaheri

Reported by Zaid al-Alaya’a, Yemen Observer, Sept. 22, 2007

Dr. Mohammed Mohsen al-Dhaheri, chairman of the Political Sciences Department at Sana’a University, spoke with the Yemen Observer about the contemporary role of tribes in the governance of Yemen and the conflict between the traditional and modern authorities. He is the author of two books about the socio-political relationship between the tribes and the state in Yemen.

Yemen Observer: What do you think of the newly established National Solidarity Council, and what do you think prompted its establishment?

Dr. Mohammed al-Dhaheri: First, I would like to say that this is what we can call political meddling. Tribes in Yemen have certain mechanisms to demand their rights. For example, some tribes will block highways or kidnap foreigners to add urgency to their demands. I can not put this council in the frame of a tribal bloc. It is can not what I would call a tribal council nor is it a partisan council. You can see that politicians meet with the sheikhs and with the academics. The council represents a period in tribal meetings that Yemen has not witnessed before. You can not call it an opposition entity as it has many members from the GPC, and academics etc. As you see there is a sort of dichotomy that starts to prevail in Yemen. This council has encountered other gatherings from tribes led by Sheikh al-Shaif. (more…)

The following news item just came across the wires from Arab News, an English language daily based in Saudi Arabia. Think of your gut reaction as you read…

SANAA, 3 January 2006 — Tribesmen holding five Italian tourists hostage in northeastern Yemen yesterday threatened to kill them if troops encircling the area move to rescue them, a local official said.

The five Italians, three women and two men, were snatched from Marib, some 195 km northeast of the capital Sanaa on Sunday and taken to the Serwah district, about 30 km away. (more…)

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