Posts Tagged ‘Tribes with Flags’

Two Tribes Go To War

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Reading about Yemen this week, I was reminded of Thomas Friedman’s article a few months ago in which he drew a distinction between

two kinds of states in the Middle East: “real countries” with long histories in their territory and strong national identities (Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Iran); and those that might be called “tribes with flags,” or more artificial states with boundaries drawn in sharp straight lines by pens of colonial powers that have trapped inside their borders myriad tribes and sects who not only never volunteered to live together but have never fully melded into a unified family of citizens.

Among the secong group, Friedman includes Libya, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

This seems particularly true for Yemen. Despite the fact that there has been a real democratic movement in Yemen, the deciding factor in the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh may be a squabble with another powerful family that has strong tribal overtones.

Veteran Middle East reporter Dexter Filkins, in an recent interview with Terry Gross talked about the tribal balancing act that has kept President Ali Abdullah Saleh in power for 33 years:

to President Saleh, the Americans, al-Qaeda, you know, we’re just a couple more tribes he has to deal with… This is a tribal society and he’s constantly balancing one tribe against the other…al-Qaeda’s a tribe and like the Americans are a tribe. So he’s just playing everybody off against everybody else but the ultimate aim, of course, is keeping himself in power.

More on this idea later. In the meantime, it looks increasingly line Saleh’s balancing act may have run its course.