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Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institute for Social Anthropology

Area and People

Villages and terraced mountains in Upper Yemen.
Villages and terraced mountains in Upper Yemen.

The project focuses on Yemen’s northern peripheries: the provinces of Sa‘dah, ‘Amran, and al-Jawf. This area, also called Upper Yemen, encompasses the vast mountain and steppe areas north of Sana‘a, stretching out to the Saudi frontier to the north and the Rub‘ al-Khali (Empty Quarter) desert to the northeast.

Whereas in other parts of Yemen a profound process of social change has altered the nature of traditional social organization, in Upper Yemen the pattern of social organization remains influenced by tribal customs and traditions. Upper Yemen is the settlement area of the tribal confederations of Hamdan b. Zayd and Khawlan b. ‘Amir (also called Khawlan b. Quda‘ah). The Hamdan b. Zayd confederation consists of the moieties Hashid and Bakil and their numerous member tribes. The five Yemeni member tribes of the Khawlan b. ‘Amir confederation inhabit the western part of Sa‘dah province adjacent to the Saudi frontier; since 1934 three other member tribes of the confederation are placed on Saudi territory. The vast majority of these tribes is sedentary. Only a few Bakil sections in the desert-like areas of al-Jawf adhere to semi-nomadic traditions and reckon themselves ‘bedouin’. In terms of tribal genealogy the confederations of Hamdan b. Zayd and Khawlan b. ‘Amir distinguish themselves from the Madhhij und Kindah tribes in Yemen’s eastern provinces (Marib, Shabwah, Hadhramawt), and the Humaysa‘ tribes in the area’s extreme west (Hajjah).

Tribesmen in traditional costume
Munabbih tribesmen in traditional costume.

The resilience of tribal customs and traditions distinguishes rural Upper Yemen from Yemen’s growing urban centres, the coastal plain, and Lower Yemen: the fertile and extensively cultivated area which begins south of Sana‘a. In Lower Yemen the idiom of tribalism has long been replaced by an idiom of non-tribal peasantry. Beyond the tribal estate, Upper Yemen’s inhabitants are divided into diverse other social strata: sadah (descendants of the Prophet), qadis (hereditary jurist-administrators of tribal stock), and non-tribal artisan groups called ahl al-thulth and city dwellers. The religious cleavage between fiver Shi’ite Zaydis and Sunni Muslims, adhering mainly to the Shafi’i madhab, adds an additional layer of complexity to Upper Yemeni society.

However, also in Upper Yemen processes of urbanisation, modernisation and, to some extent, the increasing influence of Sunni Islam have begun to level out some of these historic status differences and to create more uniform identities. This caused intrasocietal tensions, which where only exacerbated by the spread of Salafism from the 1980s onwards. As a consequence a Zaydi revivalist movement appeared alongside Salafism, reinterpreting and adapting Zaydi doctrine to modern requirements.
These modern developments have to be seen against the background of Northern Yemen’s rich – and, at times, tumultuous – history, from the splendors of the South Arabian Kingdoms to the perennial waxing and waning of the Zaydi imamate founded in the 9th century CE. The revolution and the civil war against the imamate in the 1960s, the border wars against the former South Yemeni sister state, the two Yemens’ flawed unification in 1990 and their civil war in 1994, all of which left an unusually destructive heritage.

Sana'a Huthi Slogans
The Huthi slogan "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse upon Jews, and victory for Islam" on walls in Sana'a.

In 2004 armed conflict between the Yemeni state and so called ‘Huthi’ rebels, an outgrowth of the Zaydi revivalist movement that emerged in the 1980s, erupted in Sa‘dah governorate in Yemen’s extreme north. Aggravated by internal and external drivers, the conflict expanded rapidly. In 2011, nationwide tensions and often savage competition of different actors over power and influence reached a new peak during Yemen’s ‘Arab Spring’ which eventually led to the ouster of Yemen’s long-term President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih (reg. 1978-2012). The immediate outcome of the Arab spring in Yemen was a policy and power vacuum and a severe economic crisis that invited even more turmoil throughout the country.

In 2014 the Huthis exploited the national power vacuum to conquer Sana‘a. A few months after their takeover of the capital, Yemen became the victim of a multinational Saudi-led intervention, which sought to determine the course of its ongoing power struggles. With the dissolution of Yemen’s society into hostile factions the great nationalist dream of Yemeni unity is again receding.