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The Sana'a Center Editorial Yemen’s Tribes Offer a New Path Toward Peace

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

For more than seven years international efforts to end the war in Yemen have focused on engaging the same local and regional stakeholders in a similar way and hoping they will act differently. This myopic approach has produced only failure and behooves a change in approach, one that engages parties with potential to influence the conflict who are outside the current paradigm for peacemaking. Seeking out and enlisting Yemen’s tribes to facilitate conflict mediation and deescalation should be an obvious choice to begin that new path forward.

Local tribal mediation in numerous areas across the country has resulted in the warring parties exchanging many thousands prisoners throughout the conflict, where years worth of high-profile United Nations-led efforts to do the same bore fruit only once, in October 2020, with only a fraction of the number of prisoners returned to their families. Tribal mediation has also regularly facilitated the movement of people and goods across active frontlines, ended sieges of towns and villages, and facilitated the exit of armed groups from various areas without a shot being fired. Tribal leaders, using traditional means and their local purchase, have demonstrated time and again that they are able to bridge the animosities between the warring sides in a way the international actors are unable to, and yet to date international peace efforts have sidelined them in favor of tried and failed western institutional approaches.

In international circles, the topic of tribes in Yemen is often framed by one of two narratives. One is an anthropological perspective that views tribes with fascination and casts Yemen as a living museum of archaic social groupings. The other paints Yemen’s tribes as a primary obstacle to the development of the state and the modernization of society, and as drivers of conflict. This second perspective is also present inside Yemen, particularly among some elites, who view tribes as traditionalist elements that held back state-building efforts in the country’s modern history. In reality, the dynamic between the country’s tribes and the state has been far more nuanced and multifaceted, as upcoming Sana’a Center research will illuminate, with the approach taken to the national project being a crucial factor determining the nature of the relationship, rather than there being inherent tribal opposition to living in a republic upholding of social equity and individual rights.

Yemen’s tribes are diverse, complex and lack an overarching political or – thankfully – religious ideology. Rather, tribal leaders, regardless of their stripe, generally hold one priority paramount: preservation of the tribe. In various instances this has allowed for one tribe or another to become used by non-tribal political or religious interests who were able to impart the idea that doing so was in the tribe’s best interest. During the conflict, various tribes in Yemen, facing either cooption or annihilation at the hands of the armed Houthi movement, opted for the former. In other areas, like Marib and Shabwa, various tribes have seen resisting the Houthis as key to their survival and sided with the internationally recognized Yemeni government.

In early December 2021, some 50 tribal figures from all areas of Yemen gathered in Amman, Jordan, at a conference organized by the Sana’a Center and the Crisis Management Initiative, supported by the European Union, and attended by several western diplomats and the UN Special Envoy for Yemen. It was years in the making, with preliminary meetings having taken place both inside Yemen and abroad. At issue was the ongoing war and the need to bring it to an end for the good of all.

The conference produced a concluding statement that is remarkable in the values and principles it embodied. The statement called for a comprehensive ceasefire, the opening of roads and respect for their sanctity, the release of all detainees and prisoners, partnership under the umbrella of the republic, justice and equal citizenship, immediate and unconditional political involvement in negotiations, a comprehensive peace process that includes local frameworks, the payment of salaries to all state employees across the country and for complete implementation of the Riyadh and Stockholm agreements. These tribal figures – many representing social groups that have fought on both sides of the conflict and suffered horrific losses in doing so – bridged their divides and came together, united behind the shared desire to end the war and begin the process of national rebuilding and reconciliation.

This is a new opening for achieving peace in our war-ravaged country. It deserves the backing and engagement of all stakeholders who wish to see the carnage end.

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The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.