Can Tribesmen Restore Peace to War-Torn Yemen?
With no political solution appearing on the horizon, observers see a possible role of Yemeni tribesmen in solving the 8-year conflict in Yemen and restoring peace to the war-ravaged nation.
Abdulwahab Mawadha, a tribal leader, said a multi-track peace process must begin in Yemen at the local level and move up to the leadership and political components.
“If the tribal leaders are given enough freedom away from the political agenda, they could play a major role in bringing about peace to Yemen and could reach a peaceful resolution more easily,” he said.
The support of Yemeni tribes has historically been critical for the ability of the central government in Sanaa to maintain power.
While some observers see the tribesmen as part of the current conflict in Yemen, Mawadha, who is a member of parliament, said politicians, not the tribesmen, are the ones to blame.
“Even though some tribesmen participate in politics, the biggest burden falls on the politicians, not on the tribesmen,” he said. “The conflict in Yemen is a political one and not a problem between tribes.”
Yemen has been riven by violence and instability since 2014, when Iran-aligned Houthi rebels overran much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
A Saudi-led air campaign aimed at reinstating the Yemeni government has worsened the situation, causing one of the world’s worst man-made humanitarian crises, with nearly 80%, or about 30 million people, needing humanitarian assistance and protection and more than 13 million in danger of starvation, according to UN estimates.
Yemeni tribesmen have played an effective role in any political change in Yemen throughout the Arab country’s history.
Adel Dashela, a Yemeni analyst, said tribesmen were behind revolutions and political changes in Yemen, citing the two uprisings that erupted against the Imamate State in northern Yemen in 1948 and 1962 and the 2011 revolution against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Just like what happened in 1962 after the failure of the political groups at home, some tribal leaders and political elites met in Saudi Arabia, where they reached a political agreement between the republican forces and the Imamate supporters,” he said.
As tribes make a vital part of Yemen’s political process, Dashela thinks that their pragmatic relations with politicians enable them to play a role in compromising views between the warring parties.
However, he noted that the tribes may face some difficulties to establish a relationship of mutual interests with ideological groups such as Houthi rebels.
After the Houthi rebels controlled Sanaa in 2014, the political role of influential tribal figures declined, and a new group of leaders was appointed by Houthi authorities, despite lacking tribal legitimacy of their own.
Dashela said the Houthi campaign against the northern tribes has caused major ruptures within the tribal structure.
At the same time, tribesmen were “susceptible to ideological militarization” within the new Houthi order, he added.
The role of the tribes shifted from “assisting the state in governance to providing manpower for the frontlines,” Dashela noted.
“Houthis did build a relationship based on mutual interests with other societal forces, including the tribes. Therefore, they wanted to subjugate the tribes by all available means, including using tribal norms and excessive violence, to force the acceptance of their rule among society,” he added.
Likewise, Mawadha believes that the tribal leaders in the Houthi-held areas have “no expected roles” in restoring peace to the country.
“During the last meeting of tribes in December 2021, representatives of the tribes under Houthi control did not attend, because the Houthis do not allow them to truly contribute to peace unless this complies with their own conditions, which set some complications to the peace process in Yemen,” he said.
During their meeting in December 2021, Yemeni tribesmen called for holding a general conference of tribes in Yemen and holding governorate-level meetings to be attended by prominent societal figures.
They also called on the UN and the international community to promote the role of tribes to contain the conflict.
Mawadha said the idea of holding a comprehensive tribal conference inside Yemen aims to bring together representatives from all areas under the control of Houthis and the legitimate government.
“With established good intentions, representatives may agree to end the fighting and reach a partnership based on the principles of the republic, justice, and equal citizenship,” he said.
However, Mawadha opines that the biggest obstacle to the establishment of this comprehensive conference is “the identification of the participants”, as the Houthis “always show intransigence” in choosing their representatives.