Visions of Modernity: Tribes and National Development in Yemen

By Najwa Adra
Submitted to Session P3267 (AME-Tribe and Diatribe: Anthropology Meets Political Science, 2013 Annual Meeting
Conflict Resolution;
Lacking an industrial base or the water resources to develop urban industries, Yemen remains largely rural, and the vast majority of its rural population self-identifies as tribal. Yemeni tribes are territorial units, best defined as indigenous civil society organizations (CSO) made up of smaller subunits, each with its own elected leaders who mediate internal disputes and represent the community in its dealings with the outside world. Tribal organization enables groups of varying sizes to mobilize quickly and effectively in times of need. Members of the tribal population, like others in Yemen, participate actively in government as politicians, soldiers, and employees. They vote in national elections and give allegiance to the Yemeni state. Economically, individual tribesmen and women are entrepreneurial and readily absorb new opportunities and consumer goods. Tribal women have historically enjoyed mobility, voice, and full economic participation in the rural economy. Nevertheless, media and the discourse of international development stigmatize tribalism in Yemen as violent, primitive and irrational, , at the very least, inimical to nation-building. While there are historical reasons for hostility to tribes among urban and southern Yemenis, I suggest that a hegemonic understanding of modernity underlies European and American aversions to tribalism. Proponents of conservative, politicized interpretations of Islam, who adhere to alternative models of modernity also oppose tribalism. Through discussion of tribal institutions and their adaptability to contemporary global conditions, this paper explores tribalism’s confrontation with alternative visions of modernity.