Yemen’s socio-political crisis has reached a level where humanity and proponents of humanitarianism are facing a double question mark. On the one hand, agencies like UN, UNHCR, UNESCO and human rights-based organisation are continuously being attacked by the international observers and on the other hand, the so-called international peace-making body seems disinterested to solve the issue politically. The current coverage of the whole situation is being narrated into binaries of Shia-Sunni, Saudi-Iran tussle in relation to the international power dynamics of the US and Russia proxy war. There has been continuous coverage of bombing, the bombing of schools and hospitals, violence, military-led attacks, rape, child abuse and even killing of news reporters. Thousands of civilians including children have died and millions of children are malnourished. According to the UNICEF report, around two million Yemeni children are out of schools. Most of the civilians of Yemen are greatly affected by years of violence, displacement, disease, poverty, undernourishment and a lack of access to basic services. There is an urgent need to politically stabilize the country and provide a greater relief to its people by reaching a political consensus and creation of a common platform.
Yemeni society is primarily considered as a tribal society which consists of nomadic, semi-nomadic and settler tribes. Most of the tribes follow Islam since its advent in the 7th century when the religion emerged as a reforming force in the Arabian Peninsula. But the diversification within the beliefs emerged around the ideological differences in Khilafat system and emphasis on the system that Muslims should be ruled only by a descendant of Prophet Muhammad whom they call an Imam. These differences led to the creation of Zaidi Shia sect within the Islamic fold. In a similar fashion, the earlier tribal practices started getting changed through the Islamic beliefs, though the governance system of tribes remained the same as earlier. Before the invasion of Ottoman Turks, they maintained their own governing system but it got severely affected after the capture of Aden by British in 1832. This led to the separation of boundaries between the Ottomans and the British.
The history of Yemen has gone through multiple uprisings and the process of decolonisation until its release from the protectorate of British in 1967. The same period also saw increasing differences between the Shia and Sunni communities which sometimes turned into internal conflicts. Till 1990 present-day Yemen was divided into two parts controlled by ideological counterparts and they formally got merged in 1994 after a combined effort from the members of Arab League. From that stage, Ali Abdullah Saleh remained as the president of the country and was the ‘unquestioned’ figure till the Arab spring in 2011 and what happened after those events are well known.
The tribes of Yemen were always fragmented into multiple groups, though with the passage of time confederations within those tribal groups started emerging. These confederations were purely based upon a particular tribal group and its associated sub-tribes. There are various groups which have a direct influence on its particular tribal populations. There are multiple confederations like Hashid, Bakil, Humayadah, Banu-Hamdan, Banu Udrah etc. Among these groups, the Hashid confederation is considered to be the most influential and the population under this confederation is second highest. The control of this confederation is spread across the mountains in the northern and north-western regions. On the other hand, Bakil (a semi-nomadic tribe) confederation, which covers the highest population and concentrated mainly in the north of the capital Sana’a, is considered to be the second most influential confederation. The modern history of Yemen has seen a healthy power competition among these two tribal confederations. Although the influence of the rest of the tribal confederations can’t be ignored.
During the Arab Spring many of the leaders of confederations found their proximity wane with the erstwhile president Ali Abdullah Saleh and in fact, the youth leadership led by Al- Ahmar clan created a rift among the leaders of Hashid Confederation. The Houthi rebellion with the aim of overthrowing the government has definitely destabilized the existing social, political, and economic spheres of the country. With the emergence of militant organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the grip of these confederations has loosened and the assertion of tribal identity has been firmly replaced by an extremist-Islamic one. The continuous air strikes from Saudi led coalitions and regular blockade by Houthi rebellions on the humanitarian aid has created an environment among the Yemeni population which has pushed them towards extremism. Their refuge to extremist powers have pushed them to a perpetual state of insecurity and the future generations have been engulfed in a situation of darkness.
Now the question is what could be done in order to control the situation. Providing basic amenities in a regularized manner and then rehabilitating the displaced people and normalising the political hotchpotch should be the priority. Sometimes it is argued that perceiving Yemen as a tribal state is an overgeneralization and defining solutions over it could produce negative results. But, taking note of the historical facts and the events during Arab Spring one can easily define the power of tribal confederations and scope of working along with it. My argument for the political solution for the existing crisis lies under the concepts of sovereignty and legitimacy which could be utilised into formalizing federalism in Yemen. In February 2014, the erstwhile President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi announced the restructuring of the existing republic into six states but this was completely denied by Houthi rebellions on the ground of demarcation of boundaries and governance style. I think Mr Hadi completely missed the opportunity to negotiate with the Houthi rebels, he should have argued for the self-rule of the confederations which would not only dilute the protests but also build confidence among the people towards the legitimacy of the state and government. Guaranteeing self-rule in Yemen could bring legitimacy to their old age tribal practices and will lead to a condition of autonomy where catering resources according to the need would become a reality. Along with this, the question of land must be dealt from the vantage point of Yemen’s economy and its sovereignty. Although there is no guarantee about the future, somehow things would not be bad as they are if self-rule is provided to confederations.
Most of the civil wars have been controlled and managed only through negotiating with local stakeholders (sometimes decentralisation and confessionalism) and with least interference of outside powers. In a similar fashion, the ousted government with the help of neutral international organisations can negotiate with the tribal confederations which will ultimately cater to the process of peacebuilding and rehabilitation of displaced people. Meanwhile, there is also a need to balance the positions taken up by Iran and Saudi Arabia and there should be efforts to maintain a balance between the demands based on religious-sectarian lines. India has been a good example of dealing with internal conflicts and secessionist movements. The 6th schedule of the Indian Constitution is the best example of self-rule where the customary laws and cultural practices have more weight over the centre made laws. Though it would be a mistake to compare the conditions of Yemen with India, the self-rule and its legitimacy by state have always worked in a positive way. Dealing with the local stakeholders democratically rather than by using force can be helpful in finding a possible way ahead. Although a mechanism is a prerequisite to control the misuse of power at any level, the use of force has always destructed the countries and pushed millions on the margins. The countries engaged in bombing should learn with the example of Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Syria. The tribal confederations have weakened after the political turmoil but the fact can’t be ignored that these confederations have managed their communities for a long time and their legitimacy within their communities can’t be ignored in Yemen’s political scenario. The international fraternity should come out with such a solution which should work in a broader way and can maintain peace in an immediate effect in order to rebuild Yemen as the Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia).
Mohammad Imran is currently doing MA Social Work in Dalit and Tribal Studies, TISS Mumbai and has previously done BA (Hons) in Arabic and African Stduies from Jawaharlal Nehru University.