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Tribalism in the Arabian Peninsula: It Is a Family Affair

[Image from the 2010 Al Qa'qa', a TV show funded by Qatar. Image from unknown source.] [Image from the 2010 Al Qa'qa', a TV show funded by Qatar. Image from unknown source.]

Across the Arabian Peninsula and stretching well into North Africa and Sudan, there is a common bond, perhaps only behind religion and language in importance, that binds Arabic language speakers together. Museums across the Gulf proudly display lineage maps illustrating the family trees of ruling members, linking them through lines and photos from bygone centuries up to the current leader. Major financial institutions in Dubai and Bahrain display in their offices large-scale maps detailing prominent ruling family members of the Gulf States, including their marital, government, and business affiliations. Tribalism in modern day Arabia is alive and well. In this article, I highlight recent developments to illustrate how those in power in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula use tribalism, and how, sometimes, it is used against them. 

Tribalism Will Be Televised 

The centuries-old phenomenon of tribal diplomacy continues to manifest itself in the modern Arab world of satellite televisions as well as in defining politics amongst neighboring Gulf States. In the summer of 2010, for instance, Elaph, a popular Saudi-owned news portal, carried a story on what it deemed were the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani's attempts to “restore glory to his ancestor.” This ancestor, Al-Qa'qa' ibn ‘Amr al-Tamimi, is a legendary Arab warrior who helped spread Islam to the Levant. He was portrayed heroically in a thirty-two episode Ramadan soap opera. The Emir, whose youngest son is also named al-Qa’qa’, allegedly supported the major television production to the tune of eight million dollars. Elaph quoted Saudi analyst Abdullah al-Shammari, who claimed that there are ulterior motives behind the financing of this television show. “We all know that the Bani Tamim tribe doesn’t have a leader, unlike the (tribes of) Shammar, ‘Anaza, and others. That is why al-Thani [the Emir of Qatar] is seeking its leadership, especially because it is larger and more spread out than others.” The logic goes that since the Bani Tamim, who come from Najd in central Saudi Arabia and whose descendants include the al-Thanis of Qatar, do not have a leader, the mantle is up for grabs. 

There were other instances when tribal politics found its way onto the small screen. Following complaints from two influential Saudi tribes in September 2008, a 2.5 million-dollar soap opera on the al-Awaji tribal conflicts of 1750 and 1830—produced by Abu Dhabi television—was pulled off the air. The National also reported that just a week earlier another soap opera called Finjan al-Dam, whose plot revolved around nineteenth-century tribal conflicts, was due to be broadcast on Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) but was abruptly cancelled.

On the other hand, the emirate of Abu Dhabi endeared itself to millions in the Arabian Peninsula after it launched the "Poet of Millions"  competition that rewarded individuals for mastering Bedouin Nabati poetry. The popular television show preserved tribal dialects and vocabulary in a manner deemed respectful of their traditions and culture, although a number of female participants were subject to tribal pressures and even death threats.  

The 'Anaza Connection

Today, the ruling dynasties of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait all belong to the ‘Anazas of central Arabia. The ‘Anaza tribe is amongst the largest and most ancient Arabian tribes. Its members can be traced back to Prophet Mohammed’s companions and its descendants can be found across the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in non-Arab Iran and Turkey. In 1891, the ruling Al Rashid tribe of Hai’l exiled the family of Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, to his tribal ‘Anaza cousins in Kuwait. Abdul Aziz, only fifteen years old at the time, remained there for eleven years before leading forces back into Riyadh and capturing it from the al-Rashid family in a bloody battle. Almost exactly a century later, as Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait, al-Sauds returned the favor by offering sanctuary to the Kuwaiti ruling family when they were forced into exile during the attendant Iraqi occupation. Similarly, when the rule of the al-Khalifa regime of Bahrain was in jeopardy in the spring of 2011, Saudi Arabia sent in troops—along with the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—to the island kingdom as part of the Peninsula Shield Forces. Three months later, one of the Bahraini king’s sons, Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad, got engaged to the daughter of the Saudi King Abdullah. Another of his sons, Sheikh Nasser, a full brother of Sheikh Khalid from a Saudi mother, had already married the daughter of the ruler of Dubai and United Arab Emirates' Prime Minister in 2009. The vast reach of the ‘Anaza tribe across the Arab world cannot be overestimated. Toward the end of 2010, former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi claimed at an Arab summit that he also belonged to the 'Anaza tribebut that his ancestors had left Arabia because of a dispute. If true, it would mean that he was a distant relative of several ruling Gulf families.

Recent incidents illustrate the delicate manner with which tribal relations need to be handled, swiftly and with care. In 2003, for example, Talal Al Rashid of the Shammar tribe, a well-known poet and the scion of the al-Rashid family—the historic rivals of al-Sauds—was killed in an ambush in Algeria. The late Saudi Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz immediately dispatched a private plane to fly Talal’s body back to Saudi Arabia as a sign of respect and perhaps even to quell various conspiracy theories that were circulating online. In another instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Prime Minister’s brother in law, King Abdullah of Jordan—whose family had ruled Ottoman Hejaz and later the short-lived Kingdoms of Iraq and Syria—ran afoul of tribes in his own country last year. In an uncharacteristically public manner, an open letter signed by thirty-six representatives of the main Bedouin tribes accused Queen Rania of corruption, prompting a strong denial by the monarchy.

In addition to strengthening bonds, tribal marriages often go hand in hand with financial developments. It is common to find Gulf ruling family members marrying into wealthy merchant families in a marriage that preserves both the peace and the wealth. These marriages also extend beyond national borders, as the above cases in Bahrain illustrate. In the mid-1960s, the former ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali Al Thani (deposed by his cousin, who was in turn deposed by his son, the current Emir), married the daughter of the former ruler of Dubai and sister of the current ruler and Emirati Prime Minister. Despite regional reservations, an interstate gulf monetary union called the Dubai-Qatar Riyal came into place on 21 March 1966 and lasted until well after the formation of the Emirates in 1971. Familial ties and economic collaboration are deeply intertwined: one is often prompted by the other. Today in the Gulf, the marriage phenomenon between inter-state ruling families continues with the younger generation, bringing with it economic security as well as strengthening political ties between the families. 

UAE: Tribalism Squared

The Emirates are an ecosystem of tribal networks and alliances, all of their own kind. The ruling families of both Abu Dhabi and Dubai belong to the House of Falahi and House of Falasi respectively, both being branches of the Bani Yas tribe of southern Arabia. The families split in 1833 when Sheikh Maktoum bin Butti Al Falasi led 3,600 individuals from Abu Dhabi Island on a 120-kilometer trek up the Gulf coast to the southern borders of the emirate of Sharjah (where I am from). The ruling families of Sharjah and that of the northernmost emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, who are direct cousins, are even more closely connected. A network of close family intermarriages also connects all members of the Emirates' ruling families without exception. Either the ruler himself, the crown prince, or the deputy ruler of a specific emirate has immediate family members who hail from one of the other ruling families. In the continuous absence of credible federal institutions, this inter-marriage network has been overlooked as an element that has no doubt contributed to the survival of the UAE as a federation over the past four decades. 

Emirati tribalism was evinced in recent managed parliamentary elections that were so skewed in favor of familial ties that it was not uncommon to read of voters who proudly pronounced that they only voted for family members and no one else. In fact, in Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates, members from the al-Ameri tribe won three out of the four available parliamentary seats. This may have been a result of the peculiar strategy that the UAE authorities followed, in which it hand-picked twelve percent of the population to elect half of the forty members of the Federal National Council. Such skewed results may disenfranchise those who seek to further empower the national population in the UAE, a nascent country that is in need of stronger federal institutions, to demand a greater say in government affairs. In Saudi Arabia’s September 2011 municipal elections, a similar pattern emerged in which tribal candidates formed alliances with those from other districts. This phenomenon ensures that candidates who do not come from a tribal affiliation, no matter how qualified or competent, do not stand a fair chance in running for elected office.

As the UAE was trying five reform activists for insulting the country's leaders, thousands of citizens packed tents traditionally set up for weddings or funerals to listen to their tribal leaders pledge allegiance to the Emirati president. The National reported that tribal members “handed pins, the national flag and medallions bearing pictures of Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE.” One woman who spoke to the paper said, “We live here in the UAE as tribes and our leader is a sheikh. Having free elections and more elected Emiratis won't make a difference in our daily lives.” Similarly, the Dubai-based Gulf News reported that members of various tribes—including the al-Shuhooh to which the most prominent of the arrested activists, Ahmed Mansoor, belonged—gathered to “show solidarity and support to the government.” Gulf News also relayed that “most of the tribes in the emirate of Abu Dhabi” had agreed to file a lawsuit against the activists. I asked Mansoor, who was denounced by leaders of his own tribe, about the reason he never uses his tribal affiliation. He informed me that he “doesn’t like fostering tribalism” and that as a human rights activist he “would like people to deal with each other in a more abstract way” since a tribal name “orients people here.”

Prior to the high profile trial, the UAE embarked on a controversial campaign to "change and unify the designations of tribes as per the new list" according to directives from the Ministry of the Interior. Most objections were made on socal media, since this was an official decree that could not be criticized in the public media. Families whose names sounded alike, such as Al Abdoul and Al Abdouli, were allegedly due to be lumped together. Objections to such actions stem from the fact that one family is of Arab Bedouin descent and the other is of Persian descent. However, the UAE is not the first Arab state to alter family names; in 1959, former President Bourguiba of Tunisia embarked on a similar exercise, although citizens were allowed greater flexibility in changing their tribal names. During the course of 2011, social media forums in the Emirates reported that the tribal name changes were not as significant as expected, which may be a nod of recognition and appreciation to the tribes for showing loyalty to the government.

Tribe Versus Religion

It is very simplistic of political observers to declare that the six Gulf Arab governments are bound to each other merely due to the Sunni nature of the regimes. In reality, the bonds highlighted above illustrate that tribalism plays no small part in these relations. Historically, in fact, Arabian Peninsula ruling families supported each other regardless of religious sect.

One of the strongest bonds between two families in the Gulf was that of Kuwait’s Sunni Al Sabah and the Shia Al Kaabi of the semi-state of Arabistan in the al-Ahwaz region, in what is today Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan Province. During his reign (1897 to 1925), Sheikh Khazal, the Arab Emir of Arabistan, was in constant contact with the tribal chiefs of Basra (both Sunni and Shia), Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In fact, he had called for an Arab alliance in the face of what he saw as a growing Persian threat. Relations had remained tense for over a century between the Bani Kaab of al-Ahwaz and al-Sabahs following a battle in 1783. They were only strengthened in the era of Sheikh Khazal Al Kaabi. In fact, Kuwait’s Sheikh Mubarak al-Kabeer granted Sheikh Khazal a prime plot in Dasman, where the latter built a palace that survived the invasion of Iraqi forces in 1990. The Kuwaiti government is currently renovating Sheikh Khazal’s house and will turn it into a museum. According to reports, in 2010, Iran destroyed the al-Faylia Palace of Sheikh Khazal, whose family was expelled to Kuwait in 1925. 

In Yemen, on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, a war broke out in the 1960s between the royalists—backed by Saudi Arabia and Jordan—and the Egyptian-backed republicans. Tribalism trumped religion in this proxy war as well, when Saudi Arabia supported Imam Mohammed al-Badr of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen, who followed a Shia sect known as Zaidiyyah, over its coreligionist, the Sunni Jamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt.

Furthermore, the ruling family of the Sultanate of Oman, which was promised ten billion dollars by the Gulf Arab States in March 2011 following civil unrest, adheres to the Ibadi sect of Islam, which is neither Sunni nor Shia, while in Iraq, tribes such as the Jiburi and the Shammar have both Sunni and Shia members. The Shammar, to whom the current Saudi King Abdullah’s mother Fahda bint Asi Al Shuraim belonged, and who claim to be 1.5 million strong in Iraq, extend as far deep into the Arabian Peninsula as Yemen and the UAE. In 2004, Sheikh Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, one of the chiefs of the Shammar tribe who spent time in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, was appointed interim president of Iraq. In 2004, Sheikh Al Yawer also became the first Iraqi president to visit Kuwait since the 1991 Gulf War. Following Al Yawar’s appointment, Salon magazine published a report  titled “Saudi Arabia’s Man in Baghdad” and called the development “one of the White House's few smart moves.” Unsurprisingly, Riyadh congratulated Sheikh Al Yawar on the nomination, perhaps the last time it has done so to any Iraqi leader.

The tribes of central Arabia also displayed a degree of pragmatism that has gone missing in recent years, a phenomenon which may be an overreaction to the perceived threat of globalization. Amidst the male chauvinistic world of tribal Arabia, a woman was nominated by tribal elders to keep the peace between two of the Peninsula’s largest and most powerful tribes: Al Rashid and the Shammar. Following the death of her tribal chief husband, Fatima Al Zamil ruled the province of Ha’il from 1911 to 1914 as an administrator of her minor grandson's estate as a trustee of both tribes.

Tribal affiliation, however, can also be a reason for discrimination with regard to jobs and opportunities in the region, as well as a tool of collective punishment. In 2005, prior to a Saudi-Qatari rapprochement, the latter expelled thousands of members of the Al Ghafran clan of the Al Murrah tribe to Saudi Arabia after stripping them of their citizenship, forcing them to seek refuge in the eastern al-Ahsa region of the Kingdom.

Governance Through Tribalism

Tribal governance in the Arabian Peninsula today entails allocating certain government posts known as “sovereign portfolios” to family members. These portfolios include defense, foreign affairs, security, intelligence, the interior ministry, and the premiership. This system all but ensures complete allegiance and loyalty to the tribal leader, takes precedence over competence, and undermines meritocracy. Even within the ruling families, seldom do members whose mothers are of a non-tribal or foreign affiliation rise to prominence, although there are exceptions. I personally encountered much criticism online and in person following the publication of an article on the contributions of prominent Emirati citizens of mixed background, whom I was told were not “regular citizens.”

I have also noted in an article in Gulf News how, during the economic boom of the 2000s, tribal leaders in the Gulf neglected their historic duties such as meeting citizens in their majalis and listening to their demands, and instead spent more time in executive board rooms pursuing material gains. The tribal majlis or dewaniya culture became so important to Gulf states that it was one of the main launching pads of the civil society movement in states such as Kuwait, where the customary practice is now semi-institutionalized. In Kuwait, not only does the Emir pay the tribal majlis regular visits but so do foreign officials, such as the late Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz who paid a private visit to these tribal gatherings in 2007. As in Kuwait, it is common for tribal leaders and citizens in the rest of the region to pay allegiance to Gulf leaders as well. The latest example was upon the nomination of Nayef bin Abdul Aziz as Saudi Crown Prince following his brother Sultan’s death. In keeping with tribal customs, citizens were invited to swear allegiance to Crown Prince Nayef in person and by proxy in front of provincial governors, who are usually members of the ruling Al Saud family.

Gregory Gause, professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont, has argued in his latest publication on Saudi Arabia that the Al Saud relied on strong historical ties to central Arabian tribes along with the Wahhabi movement and vast oil wealth to build and sustain support in the kingdom. Gause attributes the relative stability of Saudi Arabia during the Arab uprisings to the security forces that “are recruited disproportionately (though not exclusively) from tribes and areas the regime sees as particularly loyal.” Tribal loyalty continues to be employed even within state borders as a tool of managing populations when the criteria for citizenship in a modern state should be measured in different metrics altogether. Additionally, Saudi political scientist Khalid Al Dakhil told Reuters that tribalism would take several decades to disappear and that the state “uses tribal mechanisms for political ends”. 

Conclusion

Tribal connections in the region once formed a powerful force of resistance to colonial powers and contributed to a collective Arab peninsular identity. Historically, this network formed through tribal affiliations assured a layer of trust among its members that was vital for survival. Today, however, tribalism is perhaps second only to religion as the greatest obstacle standing in the way of a civil and democratic state in the Arabian Peninsula. Lately, tribalism has been a component of the so-called exceptionalism theory of the Gulf States monarchies that have weathered the Arab uprisings through a variety of means.

Tribalism effectively sidelines non-tribal and naturalized citizens in these countries. Such “irregular” individuals can never truly become integrated in tribal societies, even after decades of intermarriage. Unlike, say, a political party or social movement that a citizen can join, a tribal network is exclusive toward those not carrying a specific last name.

Tribalism also undermines alternative social and political affiliations, such as secularism, liberalism, socialism, and even Islamism, which already exist in the region in one form or another. Going forward, tribalism is likely to pose a challenge to the Peninsula States in their quest to advance from being “developing nations.” Loyalty to leaders of states that are mere decades old can come into question, either by the governments or rivals, when Arab tribes have for centuries transcended artificial borders imposed by imperial powers. Perhaps its biggest disadvantage is that tribalism is a sort of elite club that outsiders can never truly belong to. While it is not possible to negate, nor should it be, it is advisable for the countries of the Arabian Peninsula not to stoke the flames of tribalism, either through the media, favoritism or collective punishments, if they truly intend to build a modern civil state.

10 comments for "Tribalism in the Arabian Peninsula: It Is a Family Affair"

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Very well written.

Yousif Al Thawadi wrote on February 02, 2012 at 04:45 AM
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A tribalism is a way to preserve wealth within a finite group of relatives. But the cultural influence from outside that affects both the elite and the non-elite, will eventually dissolve this phenomenon, in a peaceful or not very peaceful way.

Kazan wrote on February 02, 2012 at 05:09 AM
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An excellent and descriptive piece on the current state of affairs throughout the Arabian Peninsula. However, I don’t agree with your conclusion that “Tribalism also undermines alternative social and political affiliations..." Tribalism is also a differentiating and dominant factor in this region sort of like tradition. For any form of rule is to be successful, in the long run, it must evolve through the existing system, as the system is part of the people as much as the people are part of the system. The alternative is to force alternative rule on an unsuspecting population and I am not sure if that is the best path to take. I don’t think Tribalism undermines democracy in this region, because democracy is not part of the daily traditions or practices of people in the Arab Peninsula. The only way you will get “democracy” is for an outside power to impose it on the people. As we have seen from Iraq that lead to a disaster which ended in mass exodus of minorities and sectarianism (I don’t think the part about minority protection and judgment in use of power was well imprinted on the population because the US soldiers were too busy singing up contractors and dividing the spoils of war). Majority rule by election is not democracy, nor does it provide a better system of rule. The matter of that tribalism as an “elite club”, well that pretty much describes the eventual rise of elites in democracies, autocracies or other form of rule since the dawn of civilization (An excellent example is the current 1% versus 99% debate that’s going on in the US).

Samer Taleb wrote on February 02, 2012 at 09:36 AM
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How interesting, I learned so much by reading this article.

Belinda Poltrino wrote on February 02, 2012 at 12:40 PM
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Bold!

Aida wrote on February 02, 2012 at 01:56 PM
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as a possible followup to this carefully written article you could possibly look at how tribalism has proven to be a significant malefactor in kuwait's democratic process especially in recent years.

hamad tarek wrote on February 02, 2012 at 04:26 PM
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Where is the Arabic version of the article? Thanks

Though tribalism is endemic to nomadic and Arab cultures, its increasing force is perhaps the result of an intellectual shift of Arab elites from their old dependence on the European school of class analysis to the new American school of ethnographic analysis.

Mohamed Elyassini wrote on February 03, 2012 at 02:23 AM
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God damn Tribalism.

Mawaddah Albakri wrote on February 03, 2012 at 12:10 PM
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This is a scholarly article that condenses many others, and is a brief of value to all observers of the Gulf (oil rich) Middle East, where tribal ties are still key, as opposed to the non-oil, more populous "other" Middle East where the Arab Spring rolls along.

The great historian Ibn Khaldun also built his thesis of long term historical cycles on the fact of tribalism being a motivating force in world politics. While there are many abuses and a certain majority might be left out, most likely those who struggle for their rights and ultimately become the new establishment (e.g. the Al-Sauds against the Al-Rashids) need to prove themselves as more talented and daring than the existing ruling classes.

The problem of course is that their following generations enjoy, mostly unfairly, the fruits of such entrepreneurial labors for a long time.

But such is also the problem with democracy which took more than many centuries to briefly flourish (and essentially among similar ethnicities only) in the West after Greek civilization, starting from Plato, embarked upon an intellectual journey. This democracy now seems highly discredited as WWI and WWII horrors showed, and where the same old prejudices against non-white or non-Christian immigrants or the mainly poor have re-surfaced all over again, not to mention the long term financial crisis with many scapegoats.

In sum then, blood lines and ethnicity throughout history have trumped mainly egalitarian ideals, and it takes great sacrifice to assert equality and a trans-national or trans-ethnic community.

This is also the struggle of the Arab Spring, as with all world revolutions. Ironically, the Arab Spring is now more heavily influenced by Gulf monarchies than by many other foreign and domestic factors.

Athar Mian wrote on February 03, 2012 at 03:25 PM
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No doubt, this is a very well written piece of journalistic work. It is so, regardless of any difference of opinion I personally might have as to how we should look at the Tribal System in the region. In presenting “Tribalism” as a phenomenon that has to disappear to make space to a "carbon copied" model of democracy that we find in Western systems of governance, the writer seems to forget that the primary rule for any viable system to actually work in any given complex type of society is its ability to maintain ethnic, political and religious balance. This certainly creates a fair degree of social stability, chiefly when such balance is preserved and protected by the elite. In this case, Tribalism in the Arabian Peninsula seems to be the system that works best for its society. Although certain aspects of it could be perfected so it would appeal to the new generation of tribesmen who, sometimes, tend to look at other models of governance as a replacement. It has worked for thousands of years and it can certainly continue to do so by adapting itself to the new century and its various winds of change.

As a start, I suggest the UNESCO puts the tribal system in the region on its list of protected world social heritages.

The Berber wrote on February 06, 2012 at 06:43 AM

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