Tribal identities and affiliations keep important social and political markers in the modern and urbanized nations of the Arabian Peninsula. however, in such environments, which differ greatly from those in which tribes originated, it has become increasingly difficult to define what exactly is “tribal.” Certainly, the tribe is less in evidence as a tangible political structure than in the pre-oil expansion era — however its influence is nevertheless felt in the political institutions of the state, in addition as in social life more generally and already in state-sponsored national heritage and identity projects. In a new book, “Tribalism and Political strength in the Gulf: State-Building and National Identity in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE,” Alanoud Alsharekh and I analyze the role of the tribe in the politics in those three wealthy oil states.
Tensions between tribe and state, which date back centuries, are not unresolvable. In fact, in some ways, as proven by historian Joseph Kostiner, the relationship is symbiotic. Although tribes initially, like states, aspired to sovereignty and self-sufficiency, today they have been incorporated into structures of the Middle East’s wealthiest oil states as government strength has grown with the arrival of hydrocarbon wealth in the 1950s. While in situations of government breakdown, as in Libya and Yemen, tribes have demonstrated their ability to surface as independent groups providing the same sets that ineffective governments are unable to provide, they nevertheless serve as important markers of citizenship in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with strong central governments, and their members can become important partners to ruling families. Further, tribal evolution in Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates will always be uniquely colored by the state’s agenda, and so selective integration of tribal elites marks another important way that tribalism is part of political structures in such states.
by a multidisciplinary study, our book examines the modern usage of the terms tribe and tribalism as a set of socio-political behaviors, which exist, perhaps against all odds, in the framework of rentier states — those countries which assistance from hydrocarbon wealth or external rents and consequently are, in theory, best equipped to buy off political opposition. To that end, we examine rentier governments’ selective use of tribes and the ways in which state policies and rhetoric about tribes and tribalism have either bolstered or fragmented national identity. We also seek to understand how the Middle East’s wealthiest rentiers have historically chosen to include with their tribal populations and the consequences of these choices, in addition as how tribal populations view these interactions, in addition to how they have alternation tribal practices to what we call “bedouin lite.” This subjective and selective appropriation of tribal customs in modern urban environments has become a marker of group membership in various Gulf states, in political and social settings, in addition as, increasingly, on social media. Indeed, the use of traditional dress or of certain language has become cultural shorthand easily and freely reproduced to demonstrate in-group belonging.
While most scholars agree that tribes play politically and socially meaningful roles in the Arabian Peninsula, as evidenced by electoral outcomes in Kuwait and recent argue about citizenship laws in Qatar, the specific ways in which tribes have shaped political structures and social discourse has rarely been explained. for example, the existence of online platforms restricted to members of specific tribes, in addition as the use of informal social gatherings by majalis (councils often held in private homes, called diwaniyyat in Kuwait), permit tribes to include in informal however effective political mobilization more easily than other social and political groups. Ascriptive identity, then, instead of adherence to political ideology, appears applicable to understanding voters (and elections) in the Gulf.
Looking beyond the Gulf, the kind of blind political allegiance on the basis of social ties instead of merit is being labelled as tribalistic and deleterious already in the West. U.S. Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a Republican critic of President Donald Trump, in October 2018 called for American politics to reject “destructive partisan tribalism.” He went so far as to argue that “tribalism is ruining us. It is tearing our country apart. It is not the way for sane adults to act and most importantly, ultimately, the only tribe to which any of us owed allegiance is the American tribe.” Flake here uses the term tribalism as proxy for discussing zero-sum partisanship in American politics, since there are no national tribes, equipped with politically powerful informal institutions, as in the Gulf. already in the American context that lacks a tribal past of the same kind as the Arabian Peninsula (there is of course the different kind of tribal past represented by Native Americans), though, allegiance to a body other than the state is portrayed as problematic and connected to tribe, illustrating the elasticity of the term tribalism in addition as the extent to which the concept of the tribe as exclusivist and divisive exists in the political lexicon globally.
In tracing the historical relationships between rulers of Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE and their tribal populations, we show ways in which the state has helped to propagate certain tribal identities. Heritage projects like national museums or national day celebrations which traditionally separate citizens by tribe often invoke tribal identities, clarifying the extent to which they are produced as chiefly state initiatives or mirror grassroots notions of identity and belonging. Further, state sponsorship of so-called heritage sports like camel racing and falconry hearken back to a pre-oil and predominantly tribal past, as has the use of new national signs. Qatar has introduced the symbol of the desert rose by the architecture of the National Museum of Qatar, while Norman Foster’s design of the Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi is meant to mimic the feathers of a falcon — another desert symbol recreated as a symbol for the nation. We find that tribe in the 21st century remains potentially the most important determinant of social and political behavior, in addition as an inspiration for state-branding initiatives.
Ultimately, tribalism as a concept remains applicable in all the states of the Middle East, already though tribes themselves have limited strength in the stable rentier states of the vicinity, in which governments have taken over roles that were once the purview of tribes. The relationship between tribe and state is consequently neither static nor predictable, and definitions of tribe or tribalism can average different things to different people at different times, being at once personal and communal.
For U.S. policymakers, the challenge becomes calculating which tribal actors are politically applicable and how they aid or challenge American efforts at democratization in the vicinity. In the Gulf states, where political parties keep formally banned, tribal groupings often replace party brand. As a consequence, where they have often been (in some situations rightly) decried as fundamentally politically illiberal, much like Islamist blocs in the vicinity, these informal institutions could potentially become important interlocutors for the U.S. government as it seeks to enhance its connections at the grassroots level and foster greater political participation in the vicinity.
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