Ali Abdullah Saleh’s assassination and Yemen’s tribes

Did Ali Abdullah Saleh’s tribal games lead to his tragic end?

Yemen tribes Reuters
A tribal fighter, loyal to al-Ahmar family, stands in front of barricades erected during clashes with the government's security forces in Sanaa, April 30, 2012 [Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters]

German sociologist Max Weber’s highly cited definition of the modern state as a “community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” does not fit well with the case of Yemen. 

In North Yemen, some tribes have enjoyed autonomous political and military power since the start of the civil war in 1962. In South Yemen, Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) partially succeeded in controlling the tribes, but military conflicts within the party, including the 1986 civil war in the south, were still fought along tribal lines. The unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 also failed to establish modern state institutions in the country, allowing some tribal leaders to maintain their political influence to this day.

When Ali Abdullah Saleh came to power in North Yemen in 1978, and became the first president of unified Yemen in 1990, he was well aware of the importance of tribes. Thus, he expended an enormous amount of political capital and financial resources to establish alliances with key tribal leaders.

The most significant tribal alliance he established was with the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who headed the powerful Hashid tribal federation for more than four decades, until his death in 2007. The Sheikh, who also served as the speaker of the House of Representatives between 1993 and 2007, once described his complicated relationship with Saleh by stating that “Saleh is my president, but I’m his sheikh.”

During his time in power, Saleh showered tribal leaders and key figures from Hashid, Sanaa – Saleh’s own tribe and also part of the Hashid federation – and other tribes with the highest military positions, government contracts, and generous financial support. Saleh also allowed Saudi Arabia to continue its patronage of key Yemeni tribal leaders, including Sheikh al-Ahmar. 

Yet, in the final days before his assassination, none of Yemen’s tribal leaders answered Saleh’s calls for help. Why did these tribes decide to abandon Saleh? Why did they not come to his rescue? And does this indicate the end of tribal politics in Yemen? 

The collapse of the Saleh-Hashid alliance 

The collapse of Saleh’s tribal alliances did not come as a surprise to anyone following Yemen’s political scene closely.

First, cracks in President Saleh’s alliance with the Hashid federation started to appear in the 2000’s, when he attempted to pave the way for his eldest son, Ahmed, to succeed him. In an attempt to secure Ahmed’s path to power, Saleh started assigning a new generation of actors loyal to him to important posts, while simultaneously attempting to sideline his old tribal and military allies, including Sheikh al-Ahmar and General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who was once Saleh’s top military aide.

Saleh’s decision to designate his son, Ahmed, as heir to the presidency raised significant concerns, as well as political jealousy, among younger sheikhs, including the likes of Hamid al-Ahmar, who is the wealthiest and most influential among the sons of Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. Consequently, when the Yemeni uprising erupted in 2011, most tribal leaders positioned themselves against the president.

During and after the Yemeni uprising, Saleh did not realise that by weakening the Hashid federation and his former military allies such as General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, he was actually undermining his own residual political and military power.

The delicate, domestic balance of power that had supported Saleh for more than three decades completely withered in 2014, when Saleh reached out to the Houthis, his former enemies, to forge the most controversial and bewildering political coalition of his lifetime.

Even when the Houthis demolished Sheikh al-Ahmar’s house in Khamir later that year, Saleh failed to question the reliability of his new allies. He mistakenly thought that his freshly-minted alliance with the Houthis would ensure his security and save him from a similar faith. This, of course, was not the case. What Saleh failed to understand was that political ambitions of the Houthis would not allow the survival of any rival political power in the long run, whether this political power was a tribal leader or a former president with ambitions of returning to power.

The Houthis factor

The Houthis, a group of Shia rebels that currently control the capital, Sanaa, and large expanses of the country, emerged on Yemen’s political scene equipped with deeply rooted social connections and an extensive understating of the best practices in tribal mobilisation. They shrewdly exploited the increased gap between rich tribal leaders and their economically deprived tribesmen. 

A large segment of the tribesmen who joined the Houthis had been neglected for years by both the government and their own tribal leaders. With little education and a “nothing to lose” mentality, these poor tribesmen saw in the Houthis an exciting opportunity to improve their own economic well being. These tribesmen, poor but highly skilled in military conflicts, have fuelled the Houthis’ quick rise to power.

With a slogan as unrelated to Yemeni domestic politics as “death to America, death to Israel”, these tribesmen eliminated all Houthi opponents in quick succession. Even though they belonged to various tribes, they wasted little time replacing their old tribal allegiances with a strong allegiance to the Houthis, who presented themselves as the progenies of the Zaydi heritage in North Yemen. Indeed, Zaydism has been the official doctrine of the government that ruled North Yemen for about a thousand years.

Some of Saleh’s tribal allies joined the Houthis in their 2014 military march towards Sanaa to politically eliminate President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Islah Party, and the al-Ahmar family on direct orders from the former president. But it did not take very long for these tribesmen to see the Houthis as a rising power and Saleh as a lost cause, and they swiftly shifted alliances.

Furthermore, the Houthis used extreme coercive measures against tribal and military opponents, including demolishing homes, confiscating businesses, and displacing families. These brutal tactics made some of Saleh’s remaining tribal allies reluctant about coming to his rescue when he needed them most. 

The end of Saleh’s tribal patronage system

Saleh’s patronage system was significantly weakened once he stepped down from the presidency in 2012, because he was not able to support it financially. When he left the presidency, Saleh lost control of the state’s financial resources, as well as his influence over the Saudi patronage system in Yemen. 

It is believed that Saleh accumulated vast wealth during his time in power, but he certainly did not spend this money to keep his tribal allies happy after he left office. Most importantly, when the Houthis targeted and humiliated some of Saleh’s tribal allies and loyal military officers, he did nothing to stop them. On the contrary, he continued to assure the public that his alliance with the Houthis was intact against the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis exploited Saleh’s mistakes extremely well, and gradually worked towards alienating him further from his remaining tribal allies.

Thus, when Saleh called for his tribal allies to stand up against the Houthis, just two days before his assassination, nobody came to his rescue. Instead, the Houthis acted very swiftly and surrounded his residence before killing him and officially rendering his patronage system obsolete.

Does this mean that there will be no future return of tribal politics in post-Houthis’ Yemen? That is unlikely to happen. Ma’rb Sunni tribes’ support for the government of President Hadi suggests that Yemeni tribes will continue to play a significant role in the country’s future. It will undoubtedly require a strong political will and a lot more effort for Yemen to one day fit into the Weberian definition of a modern state.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.