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Shifting Loyalties: The Tribes of Khawlan b. Amir in the Huthi Conflict in North-West Yemen

Final Report Summary - SHIFTING LOYALTIES (Shifting Loyalties: The Tribes of Khawlan b. Amir in the Huthi Conflict in North-West Yemen)

The research project “Shifting Loyalties: The tribes of Khawlan b. Amir in the Huthi Conflict in Northwest Yemen” explored the tribal momentum of the six so called Huthi wars which took place from 2004 to 2010 in Yemen’s Sa’dah governorate and adjacent areas. The Huthi conflict arose from a confrontation of Zaydi-Shiite revivalists with their political and sectarian contenders (i.e. the Yemeni government and Salafi-Wahhabi groups). By tribal involvement the conflict successively escalated from a local crisis to a large-scale insurrection. The project retraced the development of the conflict’s tribal loyalties and allegiances by considering the empirical examples of the Khawlan b. Amir tribal confederation (its member tribes being Sahar, Juma’ah, Khawlan, Razih, Munabbih) and specific member tribes of the Bakil confederation (Sufyan, Wa’ilah, and Dahm). It elucidated the reasons for these tribes’ progressive involvement, their patterns of loyalties, and their impact on the course and the outcome of the conflict. Based at the Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, the project was supervised by Prof. Dr. A. Gingrich, thus benefiting from Vienna’s globally recognized historical expertise in South Arabian Studies. Europe’s (and especially Vienna’s) famous tradition in this research area together with the different social and cultural approaches of the ISA offered a unique opportunity for carrying out this type of research at the EU level.

In terms of methodology the project was based on a combination of qualitative social science methodology (ethnographic fieldwork) and qualitative content analysis. To ensure the empirical anthropological bottom–up approach of the proposed project, ethnographic fieldwork was given priority as a central tool for achieving the project’s objectives; the unstable security situation in Yemen, however, rendered extensive fieldwork in the research area difficult. The ethnographic fieldwork was thus supplemented by an anthropological “distance approach” component, i.e. the continuous online-exchange with human sources and informants in the field. This distance approach helped to investigate phenomena that could not be studied directly through ethnographic fieldwork due to the deteriorating security situation in the research area. In addition, qualitative content analysis focused the investigation of written source materials such as “Western” and especially Arabic scientific literature and Yemeni and Saudi online journals and newspapers with a regional focus. This methodological approach enabled the project to generate an abundance of unique empirical knowledge concerning the local minutiae of the Huthi conflict. The project meticulously recorded both the historical dimension of the emergence of the Huthi conflict since the 1960s and the course of the wars from 2004 to 2010 from social anthropological bottom-up perspective from which it derived, inter alia, the following main research results:
• Whereas in other parts of the country a profound social change has altered the nature of traditional social organization, in Sa’dah the local society is still largely dominated by tribal customs and traditions, because republican government interference in this area since 1970 remained weak and punctual and mainly focused on financial co-optation of the tribal elites rather than on consistent development of the province. The selective favoritism towards certain tribal leaders and the segregation of other leaders resulted in rivalries and elite conflicts among the local tribal elites, which also steered the alignment of tribal leader’s loyalties during the Huthi conflict.
• Against the background of local history, the positions of the tribal leaders in the patronage system of the government, and thus also during the Huthi conflict, become predictable. A comparison with tribal allegiances during on the 1960 civil war in Sa’dah reveals the underlying historical continuity and endurance of positions and actions among the tribes and their elites: During the Huthi conflict most front lines ran along historically documented intra-, inter-, and supra-tribal fault lines. Despite the pronounced sectarian component of the conflict, in many cases tribes and tribal leaders did not pursue religious or ideological objectives, but rather capitalized the Huthi conflict in order to pursue pre-existing tribal rivalries and feuds.
• Yet the government’s excessive patronage of selected tribal leaders produced disparities in influence, wealth and income that led to social discontent and unrest among the province’s tribal population. The Huthi conflict revealed that it was not uncommon for shaykhs and their tribes to be at odds with each other. The Huthis could successfully exploit this vertical segregation between some shaykhs and their tribal constituencies and translated it into a specific anti-shaykh movement, which in turn led to an entire and on-going redefinition of tribal leadership. The Huthis are consciously attempting to pursue a social revolutionary strategy and construct themselves as an alternative to the state patronage system of the previous decades that is decried for producing cleavages and delivering wealth to some of the area’s shaykhs at the expense of their tribes. This social revolutionary component adds an additional aspect to the sectarian and political aspects of the Huthi movement.
The project generated empirical and highly relevant knowledge about a largely unexplored region of increasing international importance, and its findings enrich and supplement the field of social anthropology. Furthermore, in light of the emergence of a rich comparative anthropological literature on the role of locals in the implementation of policies, ideologies, and religious hermeneutics, it creates synergies with other approaches within and beyond anthropology. Beyond the scientific framework substantiated recommendations for organizations with special interest in a deeper understanding of Yemen’s conflicts and social disparities has been derived, such as (foreign) policy, security, and international organizations (donors, human aid and international development organizations).