Learning Identity in Yemen: Images of Tribe and Nation

A paradox in many ways, Yemen stands in contrast to the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula.  It is a lone republic among monarchies, however remains the poorest and least developed country on the peninsula, and indeed the only non-member of the GCC.  Images of Yemen conjure up scenes akin to the Wild West for their neighbors to the north.  Yet it has been a locale for one of the larger social uprisings which the MENA region has seen over the past year.  Nobel Prize winner Tawakul Karmun is a symbol that the world has recognized this movement of mind and blood.  The movement itself has also at times united tribesmen, students, and Islamists to the surprise of many.  The issue that this paper focuses on is how youth are shaping their identities and forming political alliances in this time of political upheaval and afterwards.  It is still too early to see if democracy or insider tribal politics, a combination of the two or some other option will be the outcome, but whatever the case, a consideration of these elements will be critical in educating the next generation of Yemenis. 

The educational system in Yemen begins with kindergartens which enroll children aged 3-6.  Only a minority of children attend kindergartens, which are not mandatory, and in 2000/2003 this number was 14,771 (MoE, 2004).  Basic Education (BE) is expected to start at the age of 6, when children enroll in primary schools.  Although Basic Education beginning at age 6 is compulsory and a right according to Yemeni legislation, in reality children or parents may choose to delay enrollment until as late as age 9 or 10 (MoE, 2004).  The number of children enrolled in Basic Education in 2006/2007 was 4,270,087 (MoE 2008).  Basic Education lasts 9 years and is composed of 6 years of primary school and 3 years of intermediate school.  Upon successful completion of intermediate school, youth have the choice of entering General Secondary Education (GSE) or Technical and Vocational Training Secondary Education (TVTSE).  GSE lasts 3 years and students may choose a either a scientific or arts track, which may lead students to university upon successful completion of final examinations.  TVTSE students may complete in 2 or 3 years and are not eligible to enter universities, but may enter higher vocational training upon successful completion of 3 years of TVTSE.  GSE is more popular than TVTSE, with 549, 363 and 9,370 students, respectively (MoE, 2004). 

The language of instruction for the majority of schools is Arabic, with some private or international schools teaching in English or other languages.  Adult literacy programs are also available for those who did not attend or complete school in their youth.  Adult women are the main beneficiaries of this program which includes primary, intermediate, and secondary school education.  Although Basic Education is a guaranteed right of the child and required under Yemeni law for children to attend, in reality the government is not able to enforce this law and the Ministry of Education outlines several challenges to school attendance for all.[1]

Yemen’s weak democracy is currently protracted in a prolonged physical and structural violence, a direct result of a large civil uprising and previous regional/economic/tribal conflicts which challenge the government’s rule.  First, schooling is being directly disrupted on a visceral level by the gunfire and shelling that occurs in the middle of major urban centers of Taiz and Sana’a. The effect on education has been that some families refuse to send their children to schools and disruptions to the school routine are inevitable.  The National reporter Mohammed Al-Qadhi writes of his feelings over how to address this issue.

Some days I send my kids to school, other days I don't. There is no consensus among parents what to do, either. A friend of my daughter, Maha, refuses to go to school, naturally prompting Maha to ask why we still send her and to question how much my wife and I care for her. "Aren't you afraid for me?" she asks. (Al-Qadhi, November 2011).

Sana’a University, the main center of the opposition movement, has also been directly affected by the conflict.  It was closed in the spring of 2011, due to being the main locale of the protest movement and no classes were held, cutting off university students’ studies. Students showed a determination and urgency to resume studies, however.

“Life must continue, and my university must be open,” says Ishraq Rashed who refused to stay at home after the armed opposition and defected troops and Islamic militants closed and occupied Sana’a University early last month turning it to barricades. The Sana’a University is completely occupied by defected troops supported by armed Islamic extremists who want to establish what they call Islamic Caliphate after collapse of President Saleh regime. When students went to Sana’a University this year on September 17th, the day announced by the government as the beginning of the academic year, they were forced to go out from classes and some students and professors were attacked and beaten by the defected troops and the militants (Arrabyee and al-Kibsi, October 2011).

According to the article, classes resumed on October 16, 2011, but in locations other than the University, such as hotels and other facilities.    

Secondly, the educational system has perhaps failed students in several ways, thus contributing to conflict.  I argue that there is a weak correlation between educational achievements and job prospects for the large youth population.  Unemployment and underemployment is one of the factors contributing to the current unrest. Second, there is a discontent with a government that is perceived as operating along tribal lines, and which some claim favors uneducated thugs or puppets instead of an educated, participating society.  These criticisms are not new developments, but can be found among the rhetoric of several other opposition movements, including the Al-Hirak southern secession movement. [2] I would argue that perceptions of what role formal education and/or tribal connections facilitates in succeeding in Yemeni society plays an important role in forming civil identities and participation in democracy. 

Identity formation in in globalized worlds

One of the specific issues which I wish to address in this paper is the formation of youth identities in terms of tribe and nation and the role of education in this process.  Linger has argued that “postmodern theory claims that the rapid, relentless circulation of people and representations produces a novel array of extraordinary effects, including scrambled identities, de-territorialized meanings, and hybrid cultures” (Linger, 2007). Identity is something which is transient and blurred.  This intersects with Bayat and Herrera’s view of the colliding cultural worlds of Muslim youth, located between globalization, geopolitics, and shifting moral politics. They argue that “the cultural behavior of Muslim youths can be understood as located in the political realm and representing a new area of contestation for power” (2010).  An analysis of youth identity in Yemen would allow us to see the way tribe, state, and religion are used to create political identities, both from above and below.  Fagerlind and Saha argue that political integration is achieved when “a society is able to create unity and solidarity among its people, and to bring about a sense of national identity over and above that generated by family, tribe, village or region.” (Fagerlind & Saha, 1989).  They argue the role that education, specifically schools, play in the formation of this political integration identity.   

Ideas of tribe and state in Yemen: Foreign imports or homegrown concepts?

Yemen is a country that has maintained a stable tribal order for at least 1,000 years, despite Ottoman occupations, the Imam rule and the modern republic state. (Dresch 1989, Weir 2007 as cited in Egel).  Yemen has also been a state, more or less, for thousands of years (Caton, 2010). This would mean that neither tribal identity nor national identity, is a recent western invention or a foreign idea, but something likely present in the internal discourse of Yemeni culture to some degree.  It is beyond the scope of this paper to name and dissect all of the shifting views of identity, but I want to make the point that it is critical now to bring the issues of tribe, nation, citizenship, and political participation to the table.  I would argue that there has been, for some Yemenis, an “aha” moment, in that they were conscious of these issues before, but they weren’t able to really act on them with any force or cohesion.  Now, in my perception, they have crossed a threshold because of the revolution, and they can’t really go back to the way things were before.  The revolution hasn’t really given anyone new knowledge or facts about politics in Yemen, but it has given them a space in which to perform a new identity. 

Conflicting and Shifting Views of Politics and Tribe in Yemen

Yemeni people are keenly perceptive of the multifaceted roles the tribes play in politics. It’s not possible here to dissect all of the different views of tribal groups in Yemen, but I will cite some examples.  Accusations of discriminatory politics were present long before the 2011 movement. A Yemeni in Aden, a former British colony was quoted in 2009 saying,

“Most of what we have is what the British built when they were here. We haven’t gained anything from unification,” says a former colonel in the PDRY army, voicing a common sentiment as he waves his hand towards a row of bleak buildings. “I would rather have had the British here for 400 years than be ruled by Saleh and the Sanhan [President Saleh’s tribe]…Now everyone who has any power is a northerner,” he says. “The young people here have no chance to find decent jobs because they don’t have the tribal connections required to get them.”  (Horton 2009).

Such are common grievances found in the depressed southern port city of Aden, or the south central highland city of Taiz, touted as the intellectual capital of Yemen.  Not everyone asserts a tribal identity; for some it is a choice. Tribe-state scholar Khalid Fattah argues this point.

“As you know there has been a population explosion and there is a new generation which is not influenced by the tribal system,” said Fattah. Three quarters of Yemen was born in the president’s lifetime and 70 percent of Yemenis are under the age of 25. And a new generation emerged more globally oriented than tribally focused.  (Fattah as quoted in Arnold, 2011). 

For some Yemenis, belonging to a tribe is something like a hat you can put on and take off.  Some argue that the behavior and attitudes of tribesmen are changing in light of the current uprising.  Charles Schmitz, president of the Institute of Yemeni Studies, says, “In fact, we’ve seen quite a lot this summer in the protest movement of tribesmen simply ignoring what their sheikhs, being beholden either to the leaders of the opposition or the leadership of the president, and going off to do whatever they want.” (Schmitz, as quoted in Arnold, 2011).  Also, some argue that the influential northern tribes have aligned with the youth movement to create an opposition against the president. (Fattah as cited in Arnold, 2011).  At times during the revolution, old grievances have been put aside to forward the common goal of ousting the president. Now exiled Yemen Observer journalist Afrah Nasser reported in April that, “Tribes who have long-term revenge issues are coming to the protests peacefully and united. They are living in harmony with one voice and in agreement that they want Saleh out” (Nasser as quoted in Davies, April 2011).   However, there are more recent reports that infighting within the differing opposition groups is challenging the peaceful protest movement; this is in fact one of Saleh’s arguments for not leaving power. (Associated Press, September 2011).  It is uncertain if the different factions of the opposition, which include youth, Islamists, socialists, southerners, Houthis, and other tribesmen, would be able to come to a democratic agreement with common goals if the president did leave.  The bottom line is that we can’t really talk about Yemen without talking about tribal factors, because they do play a role in politics and frequently pop up in the political discourse. Thus any post-conflict programming would need to consider this key issue.      


Yemeni youth are forging identities in this fresh space at the intersection of tribe and state which has very real implications for political participation and democracy. Returning to Fagerlind and Saha, I stress the connection between the educational and the political systems.  As I argued before, Yemeni youth have crossed a threshold into a new area of political identity, where they are actually performing democracy.  If the regime falls only to be scooped up by other power tribal elites, the people could be plunged into a deep cynicism for democracy; they might also not accept this and continue to protest.  Aside from identity, there is a direct structural implication that concerns the distribution of educational monetary resources along tribal lines, which brings into whole other issues of the effect of tribal politics of education (Egel, 2010). Yemeni decentralization reforms implemented in 2001 were aimed at reducing the power of the national government, and placing it in the hands of local and tribal elite; however, these reforms did not limit patronage systems, only transferred them from a national to a local level (Egel).    

In conclusion, the current political situation has created a new space for political participation for youth and citizens of Yemen.  It is not possible to predict what the outcome will be, but the situation allows for a fertile ground for implantation of new educational policies in terms of both organizational transparency and opportunities to foster democracy and political participation among young people.  Yemen also has many other hurdles which it must jump, including low basic education enrollment and lack of jobs; foundations which must also be in place if greater transparency and political integration is to be achieved.  A next step in researching these issues could be a type of qualitative, ethnographic field work which could examine what is actually going on in Yemeni schools concerning education of government politics and political integration, behind the numbers which are put out by ministries, and to use this information in implementing new policies and ideas about education. 


Al-Qadhi, Mohammed. The National. In Sanaa: 'The most terrifying night of my life.' (November 8 2011).

 Arnold, David. (October 6 2011).  Voice of America. Understanding Yemen – Tomorrow’s Youth Challenges Yesterday’s Tribes.

 Arrabyee, N. & al-Kibsi, Majid. (October 14 2011). Sana’a University students study in tents.  Yemen Observer.

 Assaad, R., Barsoum, G., Cupito, E. & Egel, D. (2009). Youth Exclusion in Yemen: Tackling the Twin Deficits of Human Development and Natural Resources. Wolfeson Center for Development

 Associated Press. (2011). MSNBC.  Protestors say tribes, breakaway soldiers are hijacking Yemen revolt. 

 Bayat, A. & Herrera, L. (2010).  Being Young and Muslim. New York: Oxford. 

Caton, Steven. (2010). Foreign Policy. Yemen: Not on the Verge of Collapse.  

 Davies, Catriona. (2011). CNN World. Yemen's tribes 'put differences aside' to protest for change. 

 Egel, Daniel. (2010). Tribal Diversity, Political Patronage and the Yemeni Decentralization Experiment. University of California: Berkley. 

 Fagerlind, I. & Saha, L. (1989). Education and National Development: A Comparative Perspective. Oxford: Pergamum Press.

 Horton, Michael. (2009). The Christian Science Monitor.  Why Southern Yemen is pushing for secession.  

 Linger, D. (2007).  Identity. In Casey, C. and Edgerton, R. (Eds.) A Companion to Psychological Anthropology. (185-199). Malden: Blackwell.

 Yemen National Commission of Education and Culture and Sciences, Ministry of Education. (2004). Education in Republic of Yemen: The National Report. International Conference on Education, 8-11 September, Geneva. 

 Republic of Yemen: Ministry of Education. (2008). The Development of Education in the Republic of Yemen: The National Report. International Conference on Education, Geneva, 25-28 November, Geneva. AS

[1] MoE. (2004).  According to the MoE, the large youth bulge affects delivery and quality of education, the implication being the school facilities are not enough to satisfy the needs of large numbers of students. Secondly, they state, large families may not have enough resources to send all of their children to school.  The ministry also states that there are not enough government funds to properly equip schools and the family is also unable to bear these costs.  Finally, there may be sociocultural or economic reasons for which families choose to not send their child/ren to school, such as lack of female teachers (to teach daughters), school is far distance from house, or children are need to help around the house or bring in money.

[2] Horton, Michael. (2009). This article describes some common grievances of critics of the regime. Factors which were complaints of the southern secession movement are also some of the same criticisms of the current uprising.