Research studies

The Structural Crisis in Yemen: The dialectical relationship between state and tribe

Researcher: Diaa Nouh Abo Al-Ola

Supervisor: Dr. Elsayed Ali Abofarha

Democratic Arab Center

1.Introduction :

There is a global concern in supporting the nation-state structure and existence as the main actor in the international community (society), through understanding the extent of efficiency and effectiveness of state institutions in fulfilling their citizens’ needs.

The erosion of sovereignty whichbegan with the so-called “Humanitarian Intervention” in (Haiti, Cambodia, and Somalia) became a common challenge to the nation-state in most developing countries and the emergence of weak and failed states([1]).

While Weak states showed common structural deficit and weak infra-structural powers, these states could be strong in the field of despotic power with a highly personalized state power.

The weak state suffers from lacking of Vertical legitimacy; the absence of loyalty to the state in favor of loyalty to traditional communities (Tribes)([2]).

It also characterized by lacking of Horizontal legitimacy as there is
non-homogeneity within numerous communities of the state which display a high potential for hostile relationships([3]).

Therefore, the processes of identity formation, nation-building and
State-building are closely inter-linked([4]).

So, building a sovereign state on the basis of legitimate use of power and effective institutions, could only be exist through concrete national identity that facilitate the transformation from – the loyalty to traditional or initial associations(Clans and Tribes), to the loyalty to modern pragmatic associations which tend to promote common interests and national well(civil society association)([5]).

The state could stand synonymously for a politico-societal-economic-historical construct with a high degree of networking effects([6]).

2.Theoretical framework :

2.1.NeoPatrimonialism : refers to a hybrid mode of rule in which informal political ties and exchanges suffuse the management of a state”([7]). 

“Within the state, the distinction between private and public interests is purposely blurred, and officials occupy bureaucratic posts less to deliver public goods and services than to acquire personal wealth and status”([8]).

2.2.Nation-building: refers to “the broader process of developing a shared sense of political community that is capable of binding together the population of a given state”([9]).

2.3.State-building: It could be understood as “the construction of a state apparatusdefined by its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in a given territory”([10]).

“It is also the task of building functioning and durable states capable of fulfilling the essential attributes of modern statehood”([11]).

“It includes providing security from external threats and maintaining internal order, raising and collecting taxes, delivering essential services such as health and education, the provision of transport and communications infrastructure, and the prudentmanagement of the economy”([12]).

2.4.Failed State :“We define a “failed state” as a condition of “state collapse”, a state that can nolonger perform its basic security, and development functions and that has no effective control over

its territory and borders”([13]).

2.5.Fragile State:“It is a state significantly susceptible to crisis in one or more of its subsystems”([14]).

“It is a state that is particularly vulnerable to internal and external shocks and domesticand international conflicts”([15]).

3.Structural Crisis of modern yemen:

Historically, tribes were permanent actors in the political life in Islamic world as the condition of choosing the rulers of Islamic state – after the Prophet Muhammad’s era – was to be from (Qurish).

The Tribe retained its Political importance and religious influencein Yemen in a form of (Imamah) of the descendants – as claimed – of (Imam Zaid) who is the descendant of (Ali ibnAbi-Taleb).

3.1.Tribes’ political role in Yemen

In Yemen the tribes were strong, autonomous forces that played a major role in determining the outcome of the civil war in the 1960s([16]).
“the desire for political autonomy from a central power is a key component of Yemen’s tribal system and the conceptions of honor integral to it” ([17]).

So, the incorporation of tribal leaders into state structures blurs the distinction between tribal and state political system([18]).

Till 1990, Yemen was divided into 2 states :
1-YAR : Yemen Arab Republic (1962-1990):
It is built after a military coup led by Abdallah al-sallal against the Immimat system aiming at building a modern republican state.

2-PDRY: People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (1967-1990):

It was establish after gaining independence from Britain under the rule of one party system.

While the state in north was inclined to retaining the traditional political actors and centralization of state power, the southerners tended to support democratic values and “eliminating tribalism as a political and social phenomenon”([19]).

3.2.Tribes after the unification :

After the 2 sides agreed upon unity in 1990, they began a 30 months’ transition period to issue a new constitution than guarantee the democratic values of the state, building the state political institutions, and continuing the procedures of unification.

The unrest emerged as a result of the contradicting points of view of the elites, as “Ali Abdullah Saleh” (the president of former YAR, and president of newborn Yemen) wanted to build a simple Unitary state with a centralized political power, while “Ali Salim Al baydh” (the president of former PDRY, and vice president newborn Yemen) wanted a federal state structure that could help in achieving the unification process and promoting the democratic values and countering despotism([20]).

In 1994 war between the armies of north and south, ended with the triumph of the north and “Ali Abdullah Saleh” who began to move lonely to establish his own version of “NeoPatrimonial state”([21]),and imparting this type from north and its tribal legacy to south.

“Northern elements of the government went to considerable lengths to reintegrate them into Yemen’s political life and mobilize them as fighters against the South in the 1994 civil war”([22]).

So, the leverage of tribes had been doubled in yemen as they played the role of intermediate power between state and citizens in controlling of natural resources, providing security in some areas and joining in public wealth distribution according to the criteria of size, importance and influence of those tribes in society.

After the emergence of southern movement that demanding for the independence of southern yemen, “Ali Abdullah saleh” established a tribal committee for recruiting fighters of allied tribes to defend the unity of the Yemen republic with the engagement of the “Afghan arabs” ([23]).

This dichotomy between state and tribe explains the current struggle in Yemen nowadays as the tribal system attracted sectarian and religious group to resurge, and contributed to divide the army on the basis of tribal interests neglecting the commitment toward the state and national interest.

The foreign engagement and support contributed in neutralizing state entities in favor of strong ties with local actors (big tribes) as yemen is a fertile ground or battle arena for sunni-shiite war.

Besides the Iranian material and spiritual support for Houthis, Saudi Arabia founded a special committee to deal with the sheikhs of the most effective Yemeni tribessince 1962 with an annual revenue of 3.5$ billion([24]).

3.3.State Failure in Yemen:

Yemen is facing state failure condition which transcends the scope of political failure, to a comprehensive breach of the duty to provide a minimum standard of public goods/service.


Yemen is occupying the fourth rank in the fragile states index in 2016 according to 12 indicators of  (Demographic pressures, refugees& Internally Displaced PersonsGroup Grievance, Human  Flight & Brain Drain, Uneven Economic Development, Poverty& Economic Decline,  State LegitimacyPublic Services,  Human Rights& Ruleof LawSecurity ApparatusExternal Intervention)([26]).

Yemen has all ingredients or indicators of failed state, it is obviously faced external military intervention led by The Saudi Arabia and Gulf States since 2015 in response to the collapse of the security apparatus and the division of the national army on the basis of tribal loyalties and interests.

The former president “Ali Abdullah Saleh” since he was in power, he devoted the military to maintain his hegemony as he had about 6000 soldiers from hid tribe and allied tribes in the army were fully under his personal control, besides the former Yemeni national guard that was led by his son “Ahmed Ali Abdullah saleh”.

In 2011, in response to the popular demonstration, “Ali Mushin Saleh” the head of the north western military zone and the head of the first armored division, showed his support to the demonstrators, and deployed his units to protect them([27]).

Under those conditions, Houthes took over the authority in yemen with the support of Ali Abdullah Saleh’s troops in 2014, after surrounding the president “AbdRabbuh Mansur Hadi”and forcing him to resign from office, the matter which forced his to fulfill his mission in Aden since that time to recapture the capital and restore the legitimacy. 


State fragility in Middle East emanated from traditional social structures and paternalistic type of authority.

The incorporation of tribal leaders into state structures blurs the distinction between tribal and state political system.

3-The state could stand synonymously for a politico-societal-economic-historical construct with a high degree of networking effects.

Yemen is in need of Strong regional and global support to enforce state existence and rebuild state institutions.

So,the argument about the structural crisis of Yemen raises the questions about the efforts that should be made in restoring state legitimacy ; Is it Nation-Building or State-Building?

Yemen needs to carry out Nation-building processes that could help in fulfilling state objectives to build a modern and more unified social base supported by the rule of law and social justice with a popular sense of common national identity, because “states are based on a kind of Mechanical solidarity to bind social groups and entities together”([28]).

It is also could be beneficial for Yemen to be a Federal state that could guardant a more democratic political climate and ending the role of hegemonic tribes or groups.

References :


1 – Bishnu Raj Upreti, and others, The Remake of a State Post-conflict
Challenges and State Building in Nepal
, Human and Natural Resources
Studies Centre, Kathmandu University, Nepal, 2010.

2 –Francis Fukuyama, State Building…Governance and World Order in the
twenty first century
, Cornell University, 2005.

3 -Philip S.Khoury, and Kostiner, Tribes and State Formation in the
Middle East
, University of California Press, 1990.

4 – Tariq Mukhimer, State Building Process: The Case of Palestine,
Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, 2005.

5-عادل الشربجى وآخرون، بناء الإندماج الإجتماعى وبناء الدولة والأمة فى الوطن العربى، المركز العربى للأبحاث ودراسة السياسات، قطر، 2013.


1 – Andrea K. Riemer, The concepts of state building, nation building and
society building
, Institute for Strategy and Security Policy, Defense
Academy, Vienna, Austria, 2005.

2- Charles Chi Cui and I. Adams, National identity and NATID An
assessment in Yemen
, Manchester School of Management, UK, 2001.

3- Christophe Jaffrelot, For A Theory of Nationalism, Centre d’études et de
, France, 2003.

4- David Carment, and others, Towards a theory of fragile state transitions:
evidence from Yemen, Bangladesh and Laos
, Carleton University,
Canada, 2015.

5 – Gamal A. Soltan, state building, modernization and political islam,
afersinternacionals, Spain, 1997.

6 – Imad El-Anis, Disintegration and the Emergence of the State System in
the Middle East
, Journal of Global Affairs, Turkey, 2011.

7- Jörg Faust, and others, Foreign aid and the fragile consensus on state
, DeutschesInstitutfürEntwicklungspolitik, Germany, 2013.

8- Khaled Fattah, Yemen : A Social Intifadah in a Republic of Sheikhs,
Middle East Policy Council, USA, 2011.

9- NajwaAdra, Tribal Mediation in Yemen and its Implications to
, InstitutfürSozialanthropologie, Institutfür
ozialanthropologie, Germany, 2011.

10- PeterHaldén, Systems-building before state-building: on thesystemic
preconditions of state-building
, Conflict, Security & Development
Journal, Taylor and Francis, USA, 2010.

11- RainerKessle, and others, State Formation and State Decline in the
Nearand Middle East
, HarrassowitzVerlag, Germany, 2016.

12 – Richard Batley, and Mcloughlin, Engagement with Non-State Service
Providers in Fragile States: Reconciling State-Building and Service
, Development Policy Review, USA, 2010.

13 – Sarah Phillips, What Comes Next in Yemen? Al-Qaeda, the Tribes, and
, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, USA,

14 – Sean Yom, Authoritarian State Building in the Middle East: From
Durability to Revolution
, Freeman Spogli Institute for International
Studies, Stanford University, USA, 2011.


  • Sharif Ismail, Unification in Yemen : Dynamics of Political integration (1978:2000), MPhil Thesis,University of Oxford, UK, 2007. 

4.Sites :

([1])فوكوياما، فرانسيس، مجاب الإمام (مترجم)،بناء الدولة..النظام العالمى ومشكلة الحكم والإدارة فى القرن الحادى والعشرين، السعودية،
دار العبيكان للنشر، 2007.

([2])Riemer, Andrea K., The concepts of state building, nation building and society building, Institute for
Strategy and Security Policy, Defense Academy, Vienna, Austria, 2005.

([3]) Ibid.

([4])Soltan, Gamal A., state building, modernization and political islam, afersinternacionals, Spain, 1997.

([5])عادل الشربجى وآخرون، جدليات الإندماج الإجتماعى وبناء الدولة والأمة فى الوطن العربى، قطر، 2013.


([7])Bratton, Michael, Neo-Patrimonialism, International Encyclopedia of Political Science,
SAGE Publications, USA, 2001.

([8]) Ibid

([9])Dinnen,Sincair, The Twin Processes of Nation-building and State-building, Australian National
University, Australia, 2015.

([10])O’Dwyer,Conor, State building, Encyclopedia Britannica, 2016.

([11])Dinnen, The Twin.

([12]) Ibid

([13])Crisis, Fragile and Failed States, London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK,

([14]) Ibid.

([15]) Ibid.

([16])Khoury, Philip S., and Kostiner,Tribes and State formation in the middle east, University of California
Press, 1990, p16.

([17])Phillips,Sarah, what comes next in yemen ?, Carnegie Endowment for international peace, 2010, p(5).

([18])Khoury, Tribes, p165.

([19])Sharif Ismail, Unification in Yemen : Dynamics of Political integration (1978:2000), University of
Oxford, UK, 2007.

([20])الشربجى، جدليات، ص573.


([22])Phillips, what?,  p(7).


([24])الشربجى، جدليات.

([25]) Fragile states index, report, the fund for peace, The United states of America, 2016

([26]) Ibid.


([28])Khoury, Tribes, p(7).

14 – 6 – 2017  Democratic Arab Center

5/5 - (1 صوت واحد)

المركز الديمقراطى العربى

المركز الديمقراطي العربي مؤسسة مستقلة تعمل فى اطار البحث العلمى والتحليلى فى القضايا الاستراتيجية والسياسية والاقتصادية، ويهدف بشكل اساسى الى دراسة القضايا العربية وانماط التفاعل بين الدول العربية حكومات وشعوبا ومنظمات غير حكومية.

مقالات ذات صلة

اترك تعليقاً

لن يتم نشر عنوان بريدك الإلكتروني. الحقول الإلزامية مشار إليها بـ *

زر الذهاب إلى الأعلى