We’re a week into a major tribal war in Yemen’s Hadramawt province. Since there has been a media blackout in the area, and even Yemeni journalists are not being allowed in, core facts about the uprising remain unknown. What we do know is that there is a powerful new tribal confederation, the Hadramawt Tribes Alliance, which has led large rallies and armed clashes throughout the province. The reason that tensions are exploding is because the prominent tribal leader Sheikh Sa’ad Bin Habrish was killed in a gun battle with security forces on December 2nd. Bin Habrish and his bodyguards refused to disarm at a checkpoint, which led to his death.
The Hadramawt Tribes Alliance reported on Friday that it took control of major cities in the province, including Qaten, Seiyun, and Tarim, and that it attacked army forces which protect oil companies on the plateaus (Hadramawt is a major source of Yemen’s dwindling oil reserves.) There has also been violence reported in the major port-city of Aden, and anecdotally, I have heard about popular committees and citizen organizations being set up to govern areas under tribal control. But the latter is impossible to confirm with the media blackout.
It is definitely true that the Alliance, and Hadrami citizens who support it, have leveraged the uprising to promote South Yemeni nationalism, an increasingly dominant feature of local politics. Fighters have been waving the old South Yemen flag, and patriotic songs have been heard on captured radio stations, in moves that are sure to trouble the country’s elites. However, they have mostly handled it with ease, simply advising military forces to pull back in many areas when the Alliance demanded the total withdrawal of military forces from the province. The government is now attempting to work out a peace arrangement, believing that the rebellion has run its course.
Of course, an uprising usually doesn’t occur in a vaccum. The same goes for the revival of regional nationalism. They are symptoms of political crises already underway. Events like Bin Habrish’s death just inflame them. Yemen’s government has never had a great relationship with tribal groups, and has not adopted a consistent policy towards them. It either grants tribes autonomy, in order to persuade them to support the Sana’ani authorities, or it invents reasons to harass them, such as with the alleged ‘Iranian’ proxy cell of Houthi militants in the north. Hadramawt itself has always had an independence streak, along with ambitious elites who aspire to greater consolidations of their power.
Much of this has been inherited from the colonial era. Attitudes have never really changed about the tribal frontier as an area that needs to be controlled by its neighbouring industrial centers. The only thing that’s different is enforcement. Drone strikes did not exist during the eras of Ottoman and British rule, and most countries in the region now have their own armies. However, the philosophy is identical: Tribes can only be governed through force.
Yemen is unique in that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh deliberately balanced his government against strong tribal groups in order to better consolidate his power, which has always meant an especially precarious balance between tribes and the state. This means that the entire country has become a pressure point to challenge this thinking, which is a mainstay of industrial development in the Muslim world, and most recently uses the War on Terrorism to pit a monolithic tribal Islam (which is always argued to be al-Qaida affiliated) against secular values that have become fused with autocracy and the marketplace.
As the post-revolutionary landscape continues to stagnate in the capital, with the much-touted National Dialogue Conference not achieving more than working papers, it has become increasingly clear that the transition period has failed. Even before this uprising, the Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) attack on the Ministry of Defense was clear evidence that the process of national reconciliation was not going to end smoothly. As a result, decades of accumulated frustrations are beginning to explode. Tribes have begun taking matters into their own hands as Yemenites lose faith in the central government to deliver on issues of substantive political change.
It makes broader regional sense at this late stage of the Arab Spring, when the real gains have been in grassroots resistance, civil organizations, and new forms of political consciousness. Yemen, owing to its strong tribal structures, could very well rely on them to push for better forms of democracy. Although the scale of this uprising was nowhere near what the Hadramawt Tribes Alliance desired, and it failed in many of its objectives, it could be the beginning of something else. What will that be? And how will it impact Yemen? We can only speculate.
What seems obvious is that Yemen’s elites are increasingly isolated. This has been clear since the summer of 2011, when AQAP seized major areas of the rural south, culminating with its capture of provincial capital Zinjibar. The Obama Administration has been only hesitantly supporting the current regime as a bulwark against terrorism. Nonetheless, Washington is very nervous about events such as those in Hadramawt, especially as they endanger American energy interests in the region. However, it has also hesitated from overt intervention.
US support of the Yemeni government has mainly been expressed through military means: drone strikes and other clandestine measures. Most analysts concur that the American campaign is having the opposite of its intended effect. Anti-American sentiment is growing. Ryadh appears to be doing its best to destabilize the country, too. Historically, Yemen’s elites have usually been able to rely on Saudi assistance. However, recent moves in expelling Yemeni migrant workers and halting its aid to Sana’a betray a likely pivot for the Kingdom. Nobody, it appears, knows what to do.
Both of these realities could change if another revolution was to grip Yemen, and directly threaten Saudi and American interests. The best opportunity to avoid this would be for Sana’a to engage in further democratic reforms. However, this would also necessitate the opposition doing the same. Particularly the Hadramawt Tribes Alliance, as well as the Yemeni left, which is currently riding a wave of successful trade union strikes in much of the country. We’ll have to wait for the conclusion of the Hadramawt uprising to see what happens.