The Influence of Tribalism in the Middle East

Tribal society is often mistaken for something from a faraway past, only known through history books. In reality, however, tribalism is alive and well throughout the entire world. Especially in Africa, Asia and South-America, tribes are commonplace. Groups such as the Maasai, Kayan Lahwi and perhaps even the Witoto are well known.1 The Middle East too has a distinct tribal culture.2 The Anazas tribe connects countries and even their royal families on the Arabian Peninsula. The similarly powerful Shammar stretch from Syria well into Saudi Arabia. Even Iran is home to many tribes, such as the Lor and Brahui.3 Their omnipresence is indisputable, yet tribal structures are often poorly understood.

Their omnipresence is indisputable, yet tribal structures are often poorly understood.

A tribe is a form of societal organisation and a way for people to identify with each other. Tribesmen are primarily set to defend one another against acts of aggression by other tribes, while competing with them over territory as a means of survival. Notions of violence, masculinity and honour are central to these societies. The bond between tribesmen is further ensured by the importance of kinship, or more specifically family ties and descent.4 Religion and ethnicity can play a role as well, although this is not a necessity.5 Finally, it should be noted that the organisation of tribal societies is complex. Equality between men seems central, but power and prestige often determine who is eventually the chief of a given tribe.6 All of these values mix into a particular set of traditions that vary per region or even locally.7

In the Middle East, tribes continue to be a crucial part of the social and even political fabric of many countries.8 They are often dismissed as mere cultural phenomenon, while the contrary is actually true. The cause of their power is probably the lack of a strong state in most Middle Eastern countries. The region had long been subject to western colonialism, with French and British governments ruling their respective areas. After the First World War, they had divided the former Ottoman empire into rather artificial states that cut across ethnic, religious and tribal ties. The citizens of these new countries simply did not have many other values that connected all of them. A sense of ‘national unity’ barely arose. Instead, group identity continued to be moulded by older ties – especially tribalism. These forms of society thus continue to be influential to date, to such an extent that it could threaten the coherence of Middle Eastern states.9 As a consequence, leaders of these countries cannot ignore domestic tribal structures.

Pre-wedding feast honoring Mohammed Alerq, the groom. Al Amrah and Alerq of the Al Murrah tribe. The meal for this special occasion is camel meat and rice. Dahna Sands, Saudi Arabia

Tribal wedding meal in Saudi Arabia with men dressed in traditional Saudi wear, © Tribes of the World.

Saudi Arabia serves as a case in point of a state that engages extensively with its tribal roots. In establishing the Saudi Kingdom, the ruling Al Saud family knew very well that they would require support from the tribes on the Arabian Peninsula. They successfully co-opted willing tribes by marriage and crushed opposing ones.10 Up until today, tribal ties continue to influence politics, however invisible it may seem. Actually, one of the sole means of political participation in the Kingdom is the so called majlis, or tribal meeting. These begin with a speech by the King himself, after which tribesmen may raise their concerns.11 To what extent such meetings actually influence Saudi politics remains debatable, but it is evident that such an institution would not exist if it did not at least partially satisfy tribal demands for political participation. Another example of tribal influence can be found in Ted Liu’s article for thinktank Fride. Liu argues that tribal ties could actually make or break the democratic transitions of the countries affected by the Arab Spring in 2011. One of them is Yemen, in which tribes hold massive influence as their local structure supplement the lacking state.12 The failure to properly include their chiefs in discussions about political transition was possibly one of the causes of the fierce civil war that is currently ravaging the country.13

Tribal ties could actually make or break the democratic transition of countries affected by the Arab Spring in 2011.

This impact of tribalism on the Middle East clearly extends well beyond the cultural or social. Perhaps the most important example is the role of tribes in the Iraqi civil war and subsequently the threat of the Islamic State (IS).14 It was an uprising (‘Awakening’ or Sahwa) of Iraqi tribes that had pushed back the growing threat of IS’ predecessor in 2006. As a result IS invested heavily in gathering tribal support since its resurgence after 2011.15 In its magazine, Dabiq, the group even devotes four pages to describing how they wish to co-opt tribes into their state building project.16 While certain tribes do pledge allegiance to IS out of resentment of the Iraqi government or opportunism, this isn’t common practice. January 2014 saw a broad tribal revolt against IS. In a violent response, houses of tribal leaders were blown up and many tribesmen were massacred. After all, IS understands that tribes can be formidable opponents to their plans.17

Regional countries such as Saudi Arabia realise their importance as well and engage with Iraqi tribes in their fight against IS.18 The approach of the United States seems far more ambiguous. While they had previously supported the Sahwa, the US barely responded to the multiple pleas for support by Iraqi tribes throughout 2014.19 In fact, the United States seem to wax and wane in the extent to which they consider tribal society an ally rather than a threat. Only at the end of last year did the US significantly step up its support for what they now perceived as allies in their fight against IS.20 The complex nature of conflicts in the Middle East of course does not make it easy to diversify between enemies and allies. Still, it seems that prejudices against tribal society do play a role in assessing their position. This has prompted researchers such as Akbar Ahmed to stress that “the enemy is not the ordinary tribesman.”21

“The enemy is not the ordinary tribesman.” – Akbar Ahmed

In western society, tribalism continues to be associated with negative images of outdated or archaic ways of living. The idea that loyalty to a tribe could overrule any form of actual law seems alien and even abhorrent to a mind-set that thinks of the state and the rule of law as self-evident. The near-invisibility of tribalism does not help much either. As a result, its prominence in the Middle East continues to be underestimated or otherwise poorly understood. Tribalism is considered problematic through its mistaken equation with Islamic values, which is in turn simplistically linked to terrorism. Otherwise, it is considered a problem in its own right with tribal society perceived to be standing in the way of progress.22 Instead, tribalism should not be seen as an inherently bad institution. It represents an important means of societal organisation in an area where the state does not and cannot work as it does in the West. People in the Middle East require tribes to organise their lives and, paradoxically, prevent unnecessary conflict. Furthermore, reckoning the role of tribalism nuances the stereotypical definition of the region as a “battlefield” between Sunnis and Shias. It could be a first step to understand that other factors but religion are of tantamount importance. A better understanding of tribalism then, can only improve chances of resolving the vast range of issues in the Middle East.


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By | 2017-02-03T23:50:25+00:00 September 22nd, 2015|Categories: Insight|Tags: , , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Jorn Vennekens
Jorn is a Belgian graduate of History and International Relations & Diplomacy. He focuses on the Middle East, international security and foreign policy analysis.

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