Sana’a, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ahmar is the head of Yemen’s powerful Hashid tribe. He rose to prominence during Yemen’s revolution when he backed the revolutionary youth against the Saleh regime. He resigned from his position in Yemen’s General People’s Congress in solidarity with the protest movement and his revolutionary role culminated in the infamous Battle of Sana’a in the summer of 2011. This saw opposition and tribal forces, led by Al-Ahmar, physically confront the forces loyal to Saleh throughout the Yemeni capital. These clashes included an attack on the Yemeni presidential palace which left President Saleh injured; he was later taken to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Following the Yemeni revolution, Al-Ahmar has played an increasingly prominent role on the political scene, most recently in the National Dialogue Conference presently taking place in Sana’a.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You are a member of the National Dialogue Conference that is seeking to secure a new political stage in Yemen. How would you characterize what has been happening at this National Dialogue? What results do you expect it to achieve?
Sheikh Al-Ahmar: There can be no doubt that there are differences between the viewpoints inside the National Dialogue Conference which are causing difficulties, however this is only natural. What is required is for the people at the conference to talk about their concerns and desires, and express their fears, so that we can discuss the issues in a clear, sincere, and transparent manner. Yemen is more important than anything else and this conference is the gateway through which the Yemenis must pass through to reach a prosperous future, God willing.
As for the conference’s results, we hope that all those involved will emerge with results that preserve Yemen’s unity, security, and stability, as well as allow the country to overcome its economic difficulties in order to enter a new era of harmony, reconciliation, development, and the rule of law. We are also relying on the continuing support of our brothers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, most prominently Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, for the success of this dialogue, ensuring that the country reaches a port of safety.
Q: Some people are of the view that Yemeni tribalism stands in the way of the establishment of a modern state. How can we reconcile preserving Yemen’s traditional culture and heritage and establishing a modern civil state?
We have repeatedly stated that Yemen’s tribes are not like the Amazonian tribes; Yemeni tribalism built the Marib dam. The Yemeni tribes trace their roots back to Sheba and Dhu Raidan. It was the Yemeni tribes that built Mecca at the time of Prophet Ibrahim, and they formed the Aws and Khazrah tribes during the early days of Islam. Yemen’s tribes promoted this new religion, taking part in the conquests and spread of Islam, spreading this religion across East Asia.
There is no real Yemeni who cannot trace his roots back to the tribe and tribal society; because they are a part of this, and this is a part of them.
The customs and traditions of Yemeni tribalism do not clash with the modern civil state, rule of law and Islamic Sharia law. However if what we mean by the civil state is the renunciation of Islamic Sharia law, then this is something else. Yemen’s tribes want a modern civil state, modernity, and development. Our tribal members today include engineers, pilots, doctors, computer programmers, accountants, administrators, and officers. There is no conflict between the customs and traditions of Yemen’s tribes—which emanate from Islamic Sharia law—and development, progress and modernization, which are things that we all support.
Q: The National Dialogue Conference has brought all of Yemen together. Given your past, there can be no doubt that you will have met figures that you previously opposed, possibly by force of arms. How did this feel?
The National Dialogue cancels out what came before. We entered this dialogue with the belief that we would forget the past and open a new page, healing our wounds so that our country could emerge from a state of poverty, deterioration, and failure that lasted for more than three decades. The people of Yemen have experienced enough suffering and deprivation. I met with many of those who I had disagreements with over the years and I greeted them peacefully shook their hands for the sake of Yemen and its stability and prosperity. This [national dialogue] puts into perspective everything that happened in the past, even past sacrifices for the sake of the country. The Yemeni people have the right to live in safety and security in the same manner as everybody else. They are worthy of this and are able to bring about the required changes. We should let bygones be bygones.
Q: You are part of the National Dialogue’s working group on Saada, which is looking at the problem represented by the presence of Huthi rebels. What are you views on this?
The problems in Saada are not greater than the problems in the south. If we get things back on the right track then solutions will be possible. There was a previous project to reconcile the state and the Huthi rebels which we must look at once again. More importantly, we must solve the problem of the people who have been displaced and reconstruct Saada, ensuring state control of the province. We must also confiscate heavy arms and carry out our political work according to the constitution and law. We are brothers with everybody [in Yemen].
Q: Thousands of Yemeni citizens have been displaced as a result of the Huthi presence in Saada, while they lack any representation in the National Dialogue working group. In this case, how can we resolve the problems facing Yemen?
This is the reason that the chairman of the Saada working group has yet to be named. There are some parties that want to exclusively represent Saada, and this is neither logical nor fair.
Q: There are some who claim that the Ahmar clan is seeking to hijack the revolution of the youth, calling for you personally to retire from public life so that there can be a genuinely peaceful transition of power in Yemen. What is your response?
These rumors are being put forward by the former regime and its followers to influence the course of the youth’s peaceful popular revolution. The objective of this is to create a rift between the political forces that supported the revolution and the revolutionary youth.
We have confirmed, on more than one occasion, that the revolution belongs to the youth. We supported this and stood with the youth and will continue to do so. The slogan “leave” is a broken record that is being repeated by some parties that oppose us. We are now without immunity or guarantees. Anybody who has a case against us should know that the judiciary is our only reference, and this is something that applies to us and others alike. Our hands are not stained with the blood of the people who fought for freedom across the country. We paid the price side-by-side with the revolutionary youth. The previous regime targeted us in our home with rockets and heavy weaponry and we continued to defend our homes and families while at the same time avoiding being dragged into plots to incite a civil war.
Q: The Huthi rebels exploited the divisions between yourself and the former president to strengthen their own position in Saada. In light of this national dialogue, can you tell us if you are in contact with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh?
There has been no communication with the former regime which today is coordinating with the Huthi rebels and all parties who want to return the country to how it was before February 11, 2011.
Q: You most recently with the Southern Movement leadership, some of whom are calling for secession. How would you characterize these meetings? Was there any radical change in their view on Yemeni unity?
Yes, we met with the peaceful and rational leaders [of the Southern Movement]. Our meeting was encouraging and, God willing, such meetings will continue in the future with the same spirit of goodwill and we will reach positive results. We saw a significant change in hard-line attitudes and we hope that all the subjects of national dialogue meet with success.
Q: What is your view of the formation of a grievance committee to resolve all the grievances in the south following the 1994 war? Are you personally responsible for many of these grievances, as your opponents allege?
We support the formation of this grievance committee, which is long overdue. This should have happened a long time ago so that everybody could see the true extent of the injustices that occurred in the southern provinces and who was responsible for this. This committee today is continuing its work and we are satisfied with its operations and we ask it to double its efforts and put in place the suitable solutions for everybody with a grievance.