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Austrian Academy of Sciences
Institute for Social Anthropology

Tribalism and the State

Yemeni Village
Village in Razih near al-Nazir.

This subproject particularly focuses on the little studied period of the 1970s and 1980s. This period witnessed fundamental processes of state formation and state building, which resembled a continuous bargain – and, at times, open struggle – between various competing factions.

During the 1962 revolution and the ensuing civil war (1962-1970) between ‘republican’ and ‘royalist’ forces, the tribes of Upper Yemen played a pivotal role on both royalist and republican side. Despite the role of the republican tribes in defending the revolution, and despite the more contentious role of tribalism in moderating the effects of the civil war, the tribes in general remained the object of suspicion in many quarters. Revolution and civil war did not only initiate fundamental sociopolitical changes but also a struggle for power, influence and resources between and within different competing groups (tribes, military, ‘modernist’ and ‘conservative’ politicians, etc.) all of whom tried to shape the young Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) according to their vision and thereby secure their influence.

Khabb wa l-Sha'f area, al-Jawf
Khabb wa-l-Sha'f area, al-Jawf

In spite of considerable opposition and at times massive countermeasures in the early 1970s, a political system began to take shape which was characterized by in situ patronage of selected tribal elites and their simultaneous segregation from the highest echelons of state power. In their rural home areas the tribal leaders pursued a policy of autonomy which aimed at consolidating their influence and keeping governmental interference at bay. After YAR unification with the South Yemeni sister state in 1990 and the establishment of the Republic of Yemen, this struggle for power continued and led to the formation of a quasi-democratic, patrimonial system characterized by the political and economic dominance of tribal elites. On provincial level, the state, as often in Yemeni history, remained the pawn in the power games of local elites.

This research component aims at reconstructing the process of state building in Yemen’s northern peripheries by giving full play to its local driving forces. It considers its meso- and micro-political, tribal, and personal dynamics and the very events on the ground which enable us to understand the mechanisms that shaped the manner in which directly involved persons and communities calculated their interests, concerns and ambitions vis-à-vis each other and the state.

Researcher: Dr. Marieke Brandt