The Waning of Soqotra's Pastoral Community: Political Incorporation as Social Transformation

By Elie, Serge D. | Human Organization, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Waning of Soqotra's Pastoral Community: Political Incorporation as Social Transformation


Elie, Serge D., Human Organization


The Soqotra Archipelago is Yemen's ultimate frontier, straddling the African Continent and the Arabian Peninsula. Its approximately 50,000 inhabitants occupy a hyphenated geographical place as well as an interstitial cultural space. Soqotra, the main island of the Archipelago, is a community of once predominantly non-nomadic transhumant pastoralists, who are now engaged in increasingly non-pastoralist livelihoods, with a unique language and a mixed ethnic composition undergoing an accelerated change process driven by a dual incorporation process: on the one hand, the Yemeni government's modernization of its infrastructure and consolidation of its political incorporation into the national community; and, on the other, a United Nations led internationalization of its economy through the implementation of an environmental protection and ecotourism development program. This paper situates these recent initiatives, as the latest phase, within a historical process of change by retracing the genealogy of Soqotra's engagement with a modernization process. It suggests that this process was primarily driven by a series of acts of political incorporation by mainland actors. These acts are seen as the crucible of the island's history, as they set in motion the mechanism of change through the reconfiguration of its local institutions resulting in the transformation of its internal social structure as well as of the associated cultural practices. Accordingly, the paper, first, offers a historical periodization of the island's transformation process through a description of the four administrative regimes introduced under the different phases of political incorporation. Second, it describes the internal adjustments engendered by each of these administrative regimes in terms of polity formation, economic strategy, and their sociocultural ramifications. Third, it concludes with the emerging dysfunctional aspects of this change process and recommends the prioritization of cultural diversity as a potential solution.

Key words: Soqotra, Yemen, political incorporation, pastoralism, modernization

Introduction

Historical accounts of Soqotra have portrayed the island merely as the playground of outsiders, mostly of European origin, on some peculiar quests. Indeed, Beckingham ( 1983:172), in observing the absence of a proper history of Soqotra, which has yet to be remedied, suggests that it is from the archives of European countries that such a history has to be constituted. As he puts it, "Its history has yet to be written, and must be compiled from references dispersed in a multiplicity of books and records, not so much in Arabic as in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Portuguese, Dutch, English, French, and even Danish." He is correct as far as the pre-19th century period is concerned (Elie 2006). However, since then there has been a gradual internal transformation of the island brokered by local/national actors. Indeed, this internal transformation was carried out through government policies and the migratory movements between mainland Yemen and the island. First, at the initiative of a pre-state entity, the Sultanate of Mahra, sought to assert its authority over the island's wayward population through the imposition of an ascriptive social order and its corollary political and economic strictures. This was followed by mainland state entities deploying of different administrative mechanisms of incorporation. It was this succession of administrative regimes that brokered the island's modernization process, as a means of adapting Soqotrans' communal life to politically engendered historical changes.

In this light, Soqotra's historical evolution was driven primarily by a shifting process of political incorporation, which engendered a succession of forms of externally arrogated sovereignty. This process of political incorporation constituted the crucible of the island's history, as it introduced change through the manipulation and restructuring of its politico-economic institutions, and thus the transformation of the island's internal social structure with multiple cultural ramifications (see Cohen 1977). …

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