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
Mark Katz

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).


November:28:2007 - 12:10 | Comments & Trackbacks (2) | Permalink
2 Responses to “Arabian Tribes in the Modern World”
  1. 1
    Jason Said:
    November:28:2007 - 17:56 

    Great article, the tribal factor is highly important to understanding the region and especially the Gulf Arab states. Those states are not states that happen to be tribes, they are tribes that happen to be states. This article gives great insight into the modernity of the Arabian tribe, however I would disagree with the writers critique about the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ as one which helped to crystallize a western romanticism about the tribe. The film actually works to bust western myths about the tribe, there are numerous examples but one glaring example is when Faisal tells Lawrence that the tribes do not cherish desert life, they want green trees and water. This coincides with Dr. Katz’s assessment that modern Arab tribesmen not only cherish their modernity but want the best life possible for themselves, their family and their tribe.

    I’m interested John, what aspects of tribal thinking, custom, and loyalty did you observe while you were in the Kingdom? I’ve heard there is still great antagonisms between the Najd’s and the Hijazi’s, is this correct.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    November:29:2007 - 00:18 

    As Katz suggests, outside the major cities (or other power centers) tribal identity is still very important. Tribal leaders or councils are the law, for all practical purposes, unless and until one wants to call in the big guns.

    Memories are also important. Madawi Al-Rasheed, a noted historian of Saudi Arabia and widely published, clearly casts her analyses through the eyes of a member of tribe that lost out, big time, to the Al-Saud. It doesn’t make her writings wrong; they’re just colored or biased in a particular direction.

    The Hijazi-Nejdi rift is something other than tribal, except that the Hijazis tend to seem themselves as cosmopolitan and above all that tribal stuff. They consequently look down on the Nejd because until recently it was nothing but tribal. The hillbillies of Saudi Arabia, as it were. That’s cultural snobbery more than anything else.

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