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Tribal Politics in Jordan and Yemen

As numerous Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) regimes face anti-government protests, many pre-existing tensions have been cited as the cause of unrest in the region and certain states in an attempt to explain the wave of protests. In the case of Yemen, the withdrawal of tribal support from longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh highlights the role that tribalism plays not only in Yemeni politics, but the political process in many other regional states.[1] The Jordanian monarchy, Queen Rania in particular, has faced similar protests from tribal leaders recently as well.[2] In this essay I shall argue that an extensive tribal system is a poor substitute for independent political parties and equally incompatible with the traditional notion of liberal civil society due to its very nature. To demonstrate this, I shall first examine the dominant and independent role that tribes play in the politics of Yemen and Jordan in support of current government structures.[3] From there I shall discuss the antagonistic role of tribes against the government, as well as in distributing services within Yemen and Jordan. This will lead to a discussion of whether strong tribal systems exacerbate, ameliorate, or paralyze the growth of strong institutions, demonstrating the conclusion that tribal systems may not cause weak institutions, but they do prevent them from forming and strengthening.

Tribes Within the Government

Despite the fact that tribal leaders are often embedded deeply within government, tribal affiliations seem to function regardless of the established government. Participation in tribes is not based on voluntary membership or ideological relations, but rather deep societal and familial ties that exist, almost universally, prior to the formulation of any government structure. MENA tribes differ from parties and civil society in both their association with the government and their independence from it. Unlike political parties, tribes exist apart from the political system and do not need to be state-sanctisoned to exist. If political parties require the political system to exist, then one could say that in the case of states like Yemen and Jordan, the political system requires the tribes to exist. Though many political figures in these countries are also tribal leaders, they are usually elected into these positions due to their tribal affiliations, not party affiliations. Consequently the government often derives significant support from tribal areas and tribes: “Most monarchical leaders derive the base of their support from tribal segments and rural inhabitants.The Jordanian Hashemite monarch, for example, derives a significant amount of support from the Jordanian tribes that are located in smaller towns outside of urban Amman.”[4]

This is why recent developments are cause for concern with respect to the stability of these nations.
In early February of 2011, King Abdullah appointed a new Prime Minister and dissolved his cabinet following a series of protests, but despite this, 36 Bedouin tribal leaders recently criticized Queen Rania publicly. Presumably a veiled criticism of the monarchy as a whole, the tribal leaders accused her of developing “power centres” that are contrary to Jordanian interests.[5] Even though the Jordanian monarchy comprises the executive branch, and appoints all members of the cabinet and legislative branch, the discontentment of the tribal leaders could signal a shift in influence and power. This has resulted in a disproportionate amount of representation for the more rural areas:

Another segment of Arab societies that is often privileged by existing electoral institutions comprises those citizens who live in tribal or rural areas…To continue to keep electoral support for the monarchy strong among these segments, the regime has through institutional manipulation allowed for more electoral representation (via the number of seats per district) in these rural and tribal strongholds.[6]

Because the government relies upon tribal support for legitimacy, the most sparsely populated and non-urban areas of the country are the most heavily represented, and so tribal interests dominate the political landscape.
Jordan’s history of reliance upon Bedouin tribes extends back to the days of British imperialism when the Arab legion was composed largely of the southern Bedouins.[7] Ever since, tribal influence in Jordanian politics has remained strong. A notable instance of such influence occurred following the liberalization reforms in 1990. Though political parties were legalized with a new government charter, “to curtail the impact of this opposition [to pro-Israel stances], the electoral law was changed in 1993 to favor tribal over ideological…candidates.”[8] Such a policy serves to demonstrate the powerful role tribes have played in Jordanian politics.

Though in 2007 there were 30 registered political parties, membership was relatively low (approx. 10,000 total) and most parties were little more than the extended influence of a single individual. Regardless of the strength of political parties, in Jordan and Yemen in particular, tribal allegiance often influences voting patterns more so than political party affiliation: “Certain majorities clearly cite tribal allegiances as a reason for the way they allocate their votes. Jordanian and Yemenis prize the importance of tribal ties more than linkages to political parties when allocating their votes.”[9] Though some postulate this is due simply to the inability of political parties to make good on promises or campaign on platforms (due to weak legislature),[10] I would argue that a persisting tribal system in Jordan and Yemen is one of the reasons that political parties in these states lack the necessary infrastructure to deliver goods and services to constituents above and beyond the tribal level, as I shall demonstrate in the final section.

Tribes Against the Government and Resource Distribution

As seen with the party reforms favoring tribal leaders, often political progress toward stronger institutions and weaker tribal influence is hampered by tribes. In the case of Yemen, such political maneuvering can sometimes turn violent; President of the Military Council Ibrahim al Hamdi was assassinated in 1977, with one motive being his attempts to weaken tribal political power and author more egalitarian reforms.[11] Another reason for the inability of governments to make progress due to tribes is the intertwining of tribal, religious, and secular law. For instance, in Yemen, tribal law still holds a place in state courts: “The state still recognizes customary tribal law, ‘urf, with the proviso that it not undermine sharia, but inconsistencies between ‘urf and sharia remain.”[12] Such government sanctioning of tribal influence ties tribe and government together in a tangible and inextricable way.

Though the Bedouin tribes of Jordan have recently called for more democratic elections, especially in protests against Queen Rania, there is reason to believe that this is only posturing. This is because, especially in Yemen, tribes often act autonomously and are recalcitrant to giving up authority or the right to enforce tribal laws: “Some tribes consider their territories states within the state, control the central government’s entry, and desire at least a degree of autonomy. Their authority and questions about whether or not the tribes can legitimately employ force pose obstacles to state sovereignty.”[13]

Particularly problematic are Yemen’s northern tribes, the Bakil, Hashid, Madhaj, who exert the most political influence and govern the region of Yemen with the second largest number of privately owned weapons in the world. This too, seems reinforced by tribal affiliation, since “carrying a weapon to guard against central authority is a tradition.”[14] In recent years, there has been an ever-escalating number of kidnappings for either political or economic gain by tribes in Yemen, underscoring the government’s inability to control, or even curb, tribes.[15] With a strange combination of autonomy and state support for tribes, it is no wonder that the recent resignation of Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar in Yemen signals not only the potential for civil war, but a significant destabilizing factor.[16]
Intimately related to the role tribes play in political parties and the functioning of the government is their ability to deliver goods and services, in lieu of the government, in the most rural areas of the country:

For the many Yemenis who live outside of urban centers, the tribe is an extremely important social, political, and economic institution. This is particularly the case in northern Yemen. The ruling party in the former [People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen] saw tribes as an anachronism and attempted to dismantle them, but they have endured and, with the collapse of communism, have reemerged as a significant political and social force in parts of the south.[17]

In a healthy system, political parties and social groups would be expected to express the needs of the people to the government, who would then provide services to citizens. Wasta loosely refers to state resources but can also refer to general and basic services, and the allocation of those resources based on favoritism or nepotism rather than need or equality. An emphasis on wasta in Jordanian society means that Jordanian voters increasingly rely upon what services they can obtain from candidates to decide how they allocate their votes rather than political ideology or campaigning.[18] In countries like Jordan and Yemen, access to state and basic resources in rural areas can be extremely limited, which increases the strength of tribes who can more readily mobilize to provide services, especially when they are granted extreme autonomy. Because in rural areas tribal leaders are identical to political officials, they are more likely to stay in power, as they are responsible for providing rural areas with basic needs, as well as jobs and government connections.
Tribes obtaining basic or state resources can occur within the government system, as in Jordan where parties form around tribal associations and Yemen where some of the highest ranking political figures are tribal leaders, or it can occur outside of and antagonistic to the state. As mentioned earlier, there have been increasingly more kidnappings of foreign citizens by tribes in the rural parts of Yemen. Where these kidnappings once sought to force the government to build roads and schools in the region, it has now devolved to simple extortion of government funds. [19] Occasionally kidnappings have occurred in search of political favors, like the release of imprisoned tribe members, which was the case in the 2009 kidnapping of a Japanese engineer.[20]

Tribalism: Beneficial or Detrimental?


Given that tribes have been shown to work both within and against the political structures in place, sometimes supporting and sometimes undermining them, the question remains of whether tribal structures in states like Jordan and Yemen are propping up weak governments or preventing such governments from liberalizing. An expert on Egyptian civil society, Mustaph Kamel Al-Sayyid, claims that “neotraditional institutions that combine both primordial ties and a modern formal organization would coexist in a commonly acceptable definition of civil society.”[21] Such coexistence would presumable strengthen rather than weaken civil society and government institutions.

While a potential example of this might exist in the Muslim Brotherhood (especially Jordan’s form), this argument is significantly weakened by Bryan Turner’s observation that tribalism and civic society are anathema due to tribal associations occurring over and above civic engagement, saying that “these ‘primary loyalties [in Arab society] corrode the foundation of urban citizenship’” and a truly robust civil society needs “the existence of independent voluntary associations and institutions that link the anomic individual to the abstract state.”[22] As we see in the case of Jordan, few citizens vote along party or ideological lines, instead choosing candidates based on their tribal affiliations; in fact, just over 70% of Jordanians surveyed in the Arab Barometer Project indicated that tribe was an important or very important factor in selecting a candidate, whereas political affiliations as an important factor only garnered slightly more than 30%. [23]
Another argument for the utility of tribal associations, advanced by Nazih Ayubi, claims that fractures between more traditional institutions, like tribes, and more modern civic institutions can “be useful state integration devices, which…can potentially enhance civil society activity and prevent marginalization and isolation.”[24] However, if any fractures are to occur, as demonstrated earlier, it would appear to happen between tribal forces resistant to losing political influence and rising egalitarian and democratic sentiments, as in the case of the 1993 Jordanian charter that overturned the freedom of political parties in favor of tribal affiliations, or the assassination of Yemeni President Ibrahim al Hamdi when he attempted to dismantle tribal influence on the government in 1977. Such actions seem to harm rather than enhance civil society and political participation, and only reinforces the odd relationship outlined above between tribes and political institutions. Also, the abdication of tribal ties seems unlikely, since, according to Turner, “individuals in the Arab world, by virtue of their primordial ties, are less atomistic than their counterparts in the western world. Thus…Arab civil society does not constitute ‘real’ civil society the way it is conceived of in its classic liberal formation.”[25] These familial and tribal bonds, whether assuming the distribution of services in place of the state or dominating elections with tribal leaders, have a damaging effect on the creation of true democratic institutions.
Lastly, there is the claim that the strength of tribalism is due to the weakness of political parties, which in turn occurs due to weak legislatures and authoritarian governments:

Some might argue that tribal loyalties remain a major impediment to developing a political party system based on political interests rather than kinship ties, but it is also legitimate to argue that as long as political parties cannot deliver on political platforms – because of ineffective legislatures – tribal ties will remain dominant in many electoral systems, especially since tribal networks serve as a key pathway to redistributive services.[26]

While the ability for tribes to deliver services more effectively than the state in rural areas is certainly due to the weakness of the political system, the histories of both Jordan and Yemen clearly demonstrate a recalcitrance toward diminishing tribal political power, even in favor of egalitarian and democratic reforms. It might be the case that weak government and legislature has lead to strong tribes, it is also equally the case that strong tribes have purposefully maintained weak governments. Even Yemeni officials agree that tribal loyalty is often up for sale,[27] and civilians often have the sense that tribes double-deal; according to one Yemeni citizen, “‘The Hashid and Baqil tribes will do as they have always done,’ says Iryani: ‘Get paid in the morning from one guy, pledge allegiance to him, then get paid from the other side in the evening and pledge allegiance to him.’”[28] Yet these have become commonplace due to the strength of the tribes and the inability of the government to divorce tribal affiliation from political participation.

Concluding Remarks

Tribes have played, and continue to play, a significant role in politics and civil society in the MENA region, specifically Jordan and Yemen. Tribal associations and affiliations in both cases preceded the formation of actual governments, and as such tribes have continued to dominate Jordanian and Yemeni society. Though often incorporated into the government structure and reinforced by mandates and policies, tribes are often at odds with the general political process in the counties, especially when measures are taken to decrease their influence. In the more extreme cases, tribes act outside of the political jurisdiction of the state and often use aggressive tactics to secure and distribute state resources. Given these realities, it is difficult to imagine that such entrenched tribal systems will comfortably integrate into civil society, nor is it likely that citizens in these countries will quickly forget such tribal and familial connections. As more and more protests involve tribal leaders and large tribal blocs, it seems less likely that a new or reformed government will emerge that shows a diminished reliance upon tribes, and equally unlikely that tribes will agree to less representation and influence.

Works Cited

BBC News. “Jordan tribes criticise Queen Rania’s ‘political role.'” February 8, 2011.

—. “Yemeni Tribe Frees Japanese Man.” November 23, 2009.

Holmes, Oliver. “The Tribe Has Spoken: Yemen’s Powerbrokers Step In.” Time, February 27,
2011.http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2055720,00.html?xid=rss- fullworld-yahoo.

Horton, Michael. “Yemen wild card: Tribal loyalties.” The Christian Science Monitor, March 1,
.http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0301/Yemen-wild-card-Tribal- loyalties.

Kasinof, Laura, and Neil MacFarqhar. “Key Tribal Chief Wants Yemen Leader to Quit.” The New York Times, February 26, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/world/middleeast/27yemen.html.

Lust, Ellen, ed. The Middle East. Washington: CQ Press, 2011.


[1] Laura Kasinof and Neil MacFarqhar, “Key Tribal Chief Wants Yemen Leader to Quit,” The New York Times, February 26, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/world/middleeast/27yemen.html.

[2] “Jordan tribes criticise Queen Rania’s ‘political role,'” BBC News, February 8, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12400274.

[3] The choice of Yemen and Jordan reflects the strong tribal traditions in both states, recent political and tribal unrest, and the fact that political parties are legal and somewhat functional in both states. Due to all-around weak institutions in the MENA region at large, cases with stronger political parties and tribal backgrounds are difficult to identify.

[4] Ellen Lust, ed. The Middle East (Washington: CQ Press, 2011), 203.

[5] “Jordan tribes criticise Queen Rania’s ‘political role,'” BBC News, February 8, 2011,


[6] Lust, 203.

[7] Lust, 486.

[8] Lust, 493.

[9] Lust, 204.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Lust, 764.

[12] Lust, 771.

[13] Lust, 769.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Lust, 777.

[16] Michael Horton, “Yemen wild card: Tribal loyalties,” The Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2011, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0301/Yemen-wild-card-Tribal-loyalties.

[17] Lust, 769.

[18] Lust, 200.

[19] Lust, 777.

[20] “Yemeni Tribe Frees Japanese Man,” BBC News, November 23, 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/ 8364978.stm.

[21] Lust, 229.

[22] Lust, 228.

[23] Lust, 204.

[24] Lust, 229.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Lust, 204.

[27] Laura Kasinof and Neil MacFarqhar, “Key Tribal Chief Wants Yemen Leader to Quit,” The New York Times, February 26, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/world/middleeast/27yemen.html.

[28] Oliver Holmes, “The Tribe Has Spoken: Yemen’s Powerbrokers Step In,” Time, February 27, 2011, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2055720,00.html?xid=rss-fullworld-yahoo.

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