Yemen: Defusing the Saada Time Bomb
Crisis Group Middle East Report N°86, 27 May 2009Page 19
fighting,92 as did January 2009 tribal clashes in Amran governorate, south of Saada, and al-Jawf governorate, east of Saada. Rebels and others claim the Hashid set up checkpoints targeting Huthis and their supporters and aimed, apparently, at pressuring the government to adopt a harder stance.93 These along with other incidents reflect how tribal vendettas (thar) have become a new, critical variable in the conflict. Government officials express alarm that tribal warfare may be taking on a life of its own.94
The conflict’s tribalisation has mixed implications. On the one hand, it could signal a lessening of ideological or religious motivations. Muhammad Thabit, executive director of the Saada reconstruction fund, noted:
Skirmishes might continue despite the ceasefire, but they are between tribes. The situation in Saada is now similar to that in other parts of Yemen. The problem is that whenever fighting occurs between two tribes around Saada, the media tend to describe it as between Huthis and government, based on politics or religion and amounting to a ceasefire
92 Al-Usbua (independent Sanaa weekly), 4 December 2008.
93 Abd-al-Malik al-Huthi accused the al-Usaymat (an important tribe in the Hashid confederation) of imposing an embargo on Saada via checkpoints that barred supplies and prevented free movement. Al-Ilaf (independent Sanaa weekly), 6 January 2009; Crisis Group interview, resident of Razih district in Saada governorate, Sanaa, 5 January 2009. A Saada tribal sheikh involved in successive mediations claimed the Hashid had taken more than 50 hostages in January 2009 alone. Crisis Group interview, tribal sheikh from Saada governorate, Sanaa, 9 January 2009. While these checkpoints targeted pro-Huthi tribes, they likely also were intended to encourage the government to harden its policy. A foreign development expert in Saada governorate explained the complexity of the Hashid’s role: “Members of the Hashid confederation own a lot of land in the Saada region but do not originate from there; their base is around Hajja, a less fertile region. During the war, the Huthis destroyed some farms owned by Hashid members, including the farm of Sheikh Abdallah al-Ahmar [the Hashid’s former paramount chief and speaker of parliament]. The Hashid were fighting on the government’s side. However, since the end of the war they have felt abandoned, as they got nothing in return. So they started setting up checkpoints, seizing cars on the road and kidnapping people from Saada to pressure the government”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 4 January 2009. Uthman al-Majali, a ruling party parliamentarian from Saada said, “by cutting the road to Saada the Hashid are pushing the government to take a tougher stance toward the Huthis, who have taken hostages from Hashid tribes. The government currently does not want to put too much pressure on the Huthis in order to preserve the fragile peace”. Crisis Group interview, Sanaa, 12 January 2009.
94 Crisis Group interview, Ali al-Anissi, Sanaa, 14 January 2009.
breach. It is none of the above.95
On the other hand, in Yemen’s predominantly tribal society, the war’s “tribalisation” means it is spreading far beyond its original reach. Competing tribes and tribal leaders vie for new positions to expand their power; as some groups are marginalised, others receive government help in exchange for fighting the insurgents.96 Nor is the original conflict being replaced by a tribal war; rather, the latter is supplementing the former and complicating resolution of both. Indeed, the size of the affected area, number of participating tribes and involvement of the army and other state agents distinguish this from the myriad of tribal conflicts that regularly occur and ordinarily would be solved through traditional, tribal law.97
B. A War of Succession?
With President Salih in his late sixties and in power since 1978, the succession question increasingly has become a matter of public debate. Although the president widely is believed to be grooming his son, Ahmad Ali Salih, head of both the Special Forces and the Republican Guards, the emergence of a hereditary republic is not unanimously endorsed by the ruling elite. According to some Yemeni analysts, the issue could be one of the drivers of the Saada war, described by an Islamist intellectual as “a game inside the house” – ie, a war driven in part by competition between ruling factions.98
Among those considered critical of dynastic succession is Major-General Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, commander of the first armoured battalion in charge of the north west region and, as such, responsible for military operations in Saada since 2004. Although not appearing to have a direct claim to presidential power, Ali Muhsin (sometimes wrongly labelled the president’s half-brother – the two men come from the same village)
95 Crisis Group interview, Muhammad Thabit, executive director, Saada reconstruction fund, Sanaa, 21 March 2009.
96 This strategy generated considerable instability within tribes, with junior members seizing the opportunity to replace more senior and traditional sheikhs. Crisis Group interview, independent journalist, Sanaa, 14 March 2009. During the successive rounds, fears that the government would expropriate land in Saada to establish a military base further heightened tensions. The government used the expropriation threat to induce tribes to support the army. Crisis Group interview, international development expert, Sanaa, 4 January 2009.
97 Paul Dresch, Rules of Barat: Texts and Translations of Tribal Documents from Yemen (Sanaa, 2006).
98 Crisis Group interview, Islamist intellectual and journalist, Sanaa, 19 December 2008.