Mark Katz, professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University in Virginia, has an interesting essay at Middle East Times. He notes that while the various tribes have lost much of the influence as Gulf States develop stronger central governments, they still have a role to play in daily life. He thinks that they embrace modernity only to the extent that they see tribal benefit. Definitely worth reading if you’ve an interest in the micro-politics of the region.
Arabian tribes in the 21st century
There has long been in the West a highly romantic view of the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. This view has been fostered by numerous 19th and 20th century books authored primarily by well-connected British political agents, soldiers, and travelers, as well as by David Lean’s 1962 Academy Award-winning movie, “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Many of these individuals deplored the arrival of modernity in the West and idealized the pre-modern lifestyle of the tribesman (who was portrayed as a natural-born warrior) and the tribal sheik (who was portrayed not just as a warrior, but also as an inspiring leader and wily negotiator).
Contributing to this romance was the fact that these books (including T. E. Lawrence’s) were written about a time when Arabian Peninsula governments were relatively weak and poor and when tribal sheiks enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. Finally, there was a geopolitical aspect to this romance: if an outside power could somehow rally the tribes (as T.E. Lawrence did), great benefit would accrue both to the country and to its agents who accomplished this (if not to the tribes themselves).