Photos by Alex Potter
Tribal kidnappings figure large in the popular image of Yemen, making it easy to paint the country as a dangerous dystopia filled with Salafists harboring nefarious aims. But while the media tends to focus on the rare occurrences involving foreigners or those somehow linked to Al Qaeda, the vast majority of kidnappings in Yemen are domestic tribal affairs that end peacefully without any government or international involvement. Still, in the eyes of many Yemenis, they’re an opaque phenomenon, and everything from the reasons for the kidnapping to how they’re settled remains a mystery.
Most Yemenis manage to effortlessly balance multiple, seemingly contradictory identities: the cosmopolitan, yet traditional tribal leader is, to some extent, a Yemeni cliché. My friend Ahmed, a Western-educated civil servant, (a pseudonym) is the son of a sheikh. So it was a bit of a shock when, after lunch one day, he invited me to tag along and witness some tribal kidnapping negotiations he had been involved in.
As we drove to the building where the negotiations were being held, he briefed me on the situation: It had begun with a workplace dispute in a medium-sized city a few hours south of Sanaa. An employee who had been fired had claimed he was owed back pay, gone to court, and gotten a settlement in his favor, which his former employer had refused to pay.
Unwilling to leave the matter in the hands of the Yemeni justice system, the disgruntled employee conspired with some of his relatives to kidnap the boss’s son. This was a shrewd move since there were no guarantees that the government would have been able to force his former employer to pay up. While the kidnappers hoped the whole ordeal would be over in little more than a week, the boss refused to engage with the "criminals," let alone send over a ransom. Eventually, some of the hostage’s friends stepped forward to negotiate on his behalf, and the situation fell into the hands of Ahmed’s father, a respected mediator tasked with leading the talks.
We arrived at a sparsely decorated sitting room. The meeting itself almost seemed like a regular khat chew—the leafy narcotic typically functions as a social lubricant at most meetings here. Once everyone was seated, the room erupted into political discussion. An atmosphere of mutual respect prevailed. While the majority held guns at their sides, they were more status symbols than anything. The hostage’s close friend and representative made little secret of his disdain for the tribal system, but displayed obvious respect for Ahmed’s father, a retired military man who, before the talks, asked me about my thoughts on Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger.
As the hours wore on, the khat’s effects took hold and I got the sense that the negotiations were moving forward. The group dispersed after dusk, and members of the mediation team struck an upbeat tone, noting that the price of the ransom had been more than halved. The next day, discussions continued. The optimism of the previous evening gave way to a kind of fatigue—a fatigue that was likely heightened by the intransigence of the kidnappers.
The hostage had been held for nearly than two months. There were no fears regarding his treatment—he was being treated as an honored guest, as anything less would bring shame to the kidnapper’s tribe. But even if he was permitted to make periodic phone calls, the long confinement was taking an obvious psychological toll on both the son and his family. Due to legal issues, the kidnappers were effectively forbidden from leaving their village, rendering them virtual prisoners themselves.
“Really, its like we’re all being held hostage,” Ahmed remarked that night. “The case will continue hanging over all of us until it's finally resolved.”
At the next day’s meeting, the long-expected response from the kidnappers arrived. The room fell silent as the mediator read their letter. A quiet anticipation turned to grumblings of discontent. The kidnappers demands were deemed unacceptable. Ahmed’s father spoke, contrasting the seeming insolvency of the case with his sense of duty to bring it to a fair conclusion, then—as if to underline his seriousness—he alluded to the possibility of kidnapping one of the kidnappers' own people to try to force their hands.
“Their brothers live among us, selling khat and grapes in our markets,” he said in a sober, self-assured tone. “They are obviously aware of this.”
Recalibrating, he bid the hostage’s representatives farewell. He sketched out a quick plan of action for those who remained: the kidnappers’ envoy would convey his veiled threat. Meanwhile, the hostage’s friends were to return to their hometown to collect ransom money; while there, they were to try and persuade the hostage’s father to drop the demand for the kidnappers to face legal charges. To my surprise, it all worked—after two months of negotiations, the hostage was released, the kidnappers got their drastically reduced ransom, and everyone else moved on with their lives.
Discussing the kidnapping with Ahmed and his father a few weeks later, they noted how stark the contrast was between the stereotypically violent portrayals of Yemeni tribespeople with the civility of their negotiations process. For centuries—if not millennia—tribal custom, more than religious or governmental law, has been the foundation of order in much of Yemen. In the absence of a strong state, most rural Yemenis place greater trust in tribal forms of arbitration than in the governmental version. Its not just with kidnappings: Ahmed’s father was also mediating a wrongful-death case elsewhere. But even as they spoke of the tribal system with reverence, their comments reminded me of something a sheikh said during the negotiations:
“All of this is because we’ve lived under a government that’s failed to establish the rule of law,” he said, gesturing to his gun. “If that changed, we’d gladly leave it up to them to handle these things.”