Limited State Ability Pushes Citizens to Tribes

National Yemen

, Dr. Ghada al-Haboub

Asma al-Mohattwari

Because she fought his corrupt ways, he intercepted her, beat her and stole her car.

In a desolate area south of Sana’a, Dr. Ghada al-Haboub, director of the health ministry’s national immunization program, was attacked by Sheikh Abu Hadra’s gunmen, who attacked her and looted her car while she was on her way home from work. Dr. al-Haboub had just finished an immunization training course and walked directly to her car. While driving home, Sheikh Abu Hadra stopped her vehicle, climbed inside and asked her to give him the keys. Dr. al-Haboub consented, but asked that she first be allowed to take her things. The Sheikh refused, struck her on the head and hand with a baton and stabbed her in the shoulder. Seeing her fall from the car, colleagues passing by the same street ran to help her. Abu Hadra’s gunmen, however, prevented them from approaching.

After a while, the gunmen left with her car and her colleagues rushed to assist her.  Dr. al-Haboub said that this was not the first attack she had experienced, but rather one of a series of attacks clearly carried out with the complicity of security forces.

Dr. al-Haboub attributes the Sheikh’s vendetta against her to her refusal to sign corrupted files for him. “I have already informed the Ministry of Health about Abu Hadra and his threats. The issue was raised to the Ministry of Interior, but they have done nothing. In addition, to my car they also stole the cars of Dr. Majid al-Junied and Dr. Ali Jahaf, with no comment from the state.”

The government’s failure to provide fair protection to Dr. al-Haboub has led to tribal intervention; Dr. al-Haboub belongs to the Math’haj tribe, while Abu Hadra is a member of the Bakil tribe.

After the recent attack, a delegation of Bakil sheikhs headed by Sheikh Saleh bin Mohammed Shuja’a initiated a tribal arbitration with the Math’haj tribe. In the Yemeni dialect of Arabic, these arbitrations are called “hajer.” This hajer involved the gifting of 100 oxen, ten million Yemeni rial and four cars. Sheikh Shuja’a also announced that Sheikh Abu Hadra should be handed over to authorities, dead or alive.

Attacks and killings by tribal sheikhs are events still fresh in the people’s memory following the murder of two young men—Aman and al-Khatib—at the hands of gunmen employed by Sheikh Ali al-Awadhi. Although four months have passed since the incident, the state has still failed to arrest the criminal, and Yemenis have yet to put the tragedy from their minds.

By tribal custom, it is a shame for a man to attack a woman; such a crime is known as a “black fault.” Sheikh Abu Hadra broke tribal custom and committed just such a fault. In Yemen, crimes of tribal men killing other men have become common, and in many cases they receive no punishment. The committing of black fault by attacking a woman, however, is something fairly new.

As a result of Abu Hadra’s misdeed, Yemeni women have now become the victims of tribal violence. Dr. Khadija Ahmed, a professor, said that this puts a unique conflict before Yemeni women. While many Yemeni women are demanding a modern civil state and an end to tribal rule, women in the position of Dr. al-Haboub are now forced to seek help and support from just those people they wish to remove from power.

In a lecture to the members of the transitional justice working group at the National Dialogue Conference, Dr. Khaled Fattah Abed—an expert on the subject—said that western thought on traditional societies suggests that there are three elements capable of changing tribal rule. The military, political parties, and government institutions all have the ability to limit the power of tribes, “but Yemen’s case differs from that of traditional analysis, because Yemen’s tribes are already deeply involved in these three elements.”

Dr. Abed further emphasized that tribes are present in more than one political party in Yemen; in fact, they are a center of the political system. At the same time, Yemeni tribes are not demographically dominated, meaning that tribes have a political identity without an attached community culture, though tribal groups contribute to society in many ways that the Yemeni state cannot.

Mr. Mohammed Qaed, a teacher, said that a “civil state” may not be the best response to Yemen’s current situation, especially if achieving such a state represents a jump beyond the reality of Yemen’s political abilities. “It makes more sense to talk about a modern civil state after talking about the identity of the state and nation,” he added.

Dr. Entlaq al-Motakel, a teacher in the Faculty of Arts and Gender Studies Center for Development and founder of the Youth Leadership Development Foundation (YLDF), said that when we look at the reality, Yemenis don’t have a vision for their future because they have not determined what they need. Many are still living in dreams and still believe in tribes. “Development has occurred in some aspects, but we still haven’t reached the world we dreamt of because of the tribes, and our continued belief in their importance.”

Sheikh Shadad, one of the sheiks of Bit Shadad, said that sheiks resort to the government if they have a problem, but sometimes the state is useless in resolving tribal problems. In those cases, the sheikhs are forced to use tribal rule to satisfy the conflicting parties.

“Oxen remain the victim when resorting to tribal rule, and the civil state remains a dream promoted by politicians but out of reach for citizens. We are still optimistic, though. We still have hope,” said Qaed.