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Yemen: The Country of a Million Sheikhs

Fakhri al-Arashi-National Yemen

In Arabic, the word Sheikh has historically held three different meanings. The first refers to a person who has strong knowledge in Islamic religion. The second is defined as a person who is 60 years or older. The third one means the most well respected person in a community.

The positive definitions come from a rich history starting in Roman times when sheikhs became known as catalysts for economic growth and victors for the poor. However, since the first kidnapping that took place in Marib in 1989, the definition has gradually changed for the worse.

This is because for the last 30 years, Yemen’s government has managed to cling to power by playing sheikhs against each other at the expense of its citizens’ rights.  As a result, Yemen has been pushed to the edge of absolute poverty despite the country’s natural resources and strategic location.

In the current political uprising the government largess has been cut from the sheikhs; thus, exposing their nature after 30 years of manipulation. The sheikhs that were once viewed so highly by Yemen’s citizens, have now devolved into individuals of selfishness and conflict when things do not meet their interests.

Instead of being victors for the poor and leading Yemen to its future, Sheikhs are now businessmen that use their small communities as bargaining chips for their own interest – unfortunately with great success. Sheikhs have begun to target government infrastructure to provide immunity for his tribe, only for other sheikhs to intervene and negotiate for the same immunity.

 The allure of the status of sheikh and its rewards has heads of tribes, businessmen, government officials and even rich immigrants chasing after the title as they believe it will give them access to anything they want. This rush is quickly turning Yemen into the land of a million sheikhs.

With the increasing number of men acting as sheikhs, the more oil pipeline explosions, sectarian clashes, and fuel shortages Yemen can expect to see.

Instead of contributing to instability, sheikhs must return to their original definition and support the public good, rather than just themselves.

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