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Signs of tribal clout in Yemen's struggle

Hamid al-Ahmar is not a member of Yemen's ruling party or its military. He holds no formal position in its opposition movement. Nor can he claim the authority of a religious leader.

world Updated: Sep 03, 2011 23:02 IST
Sudarsan Raghavan

Hamid al-Ahmar is not a member of Yemen's ruling party or its military. He holds no formal position in its opposition movement. Nor can he claim the authority of a religious leader.

Yet Ahmar is anything but a mere observer in the seven-month-old populist uprising to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh. A billionaire and a scion of the country's most powerful tribal family, he is using his money and power to assert a role in a new Yemen.

Ahmar has bankrolled protests in 10 provinces. He commands thousands of tribesmen, including a heavily armed contingent that guards him. His tribe's clout has bought him access and influence; now it is providing Ahmar with a power base, one that has brought fresh energy to the revolution but has also spawned more violence and chaos.

"I am living with this revolution, day by day, hour by hour," the 43-year-old said in an interview inside his opulent mansion. Perhaps more than in any other country in the Middle East, the bonds of the vast extended families known as tribes occupy a central role in Yemen, a country ruled by two rival groupings, the Bakeel and the more powerful Hashid.

But Yemen is hardly alone in the region being riven by tribal loyalties; tribes are a factor in Libya, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and across the Persian Gulf. In some ways, they play a role just as important as the government, military, clerics and the opposition, injecting another unpredictable dynamic into the turbulence of the Arab Spring.

Hamid al-Ahmar's late father, Abdullah, headed the Hashid tribal federation, to which Saleh's tribe also belonged. Abdullah al-Ahmar also headed the country's largest opposition party, Islah, and served as speaker of parliament. To help maintain his power during more than three decades of rule, Saleh turned again and again to the Ahmars, in a symbiotic relationship not unlike his bond to Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, the country's most powerful military leader.

In return for help from the Ahmars and Mohsen, Saleh gave them wide latitude to "run their affairs with informal armies, courts and economic empires" and made "direct payments from the treasury to the...tribal and military constituencies," then­U.S. Ambassador Thomas C. Krajeski wrote in a 2005 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.

Publicly, Ahmar plays down his aspirations to lead Yemen one day. He says he understands that his tribal lineage could be seen as a disadvantage in a new political order and volunteers that in a future Yemen, the tribe should be secondary to national identity.

"The tribe is not above the law;

the interests of the tribe cannot be above the interest of the country," Ahmar said.

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