TRIBAL NATURE OF GULF SOCIETY
Gulf states have not granted citizenship freely for two reasons.
First, they are reluctant to share wealth with recent arrivals;
second, the tribal nature of gulf society does not admit new members
easily. A tribe usually traces its lineage to a particular eponymous
ancestor. The standard Arabic reference to tribe is bani fulan,
or "the sons [bani] of so-and- so." The Bani al Murrah
in Saudi Arabia, for example, trace their line back to a figure
named Murrah, who lived some time before the Prophet.
Over a period of 1,500 years, the sons of Murrah, or any other
ancient figure, have tended to become numerous, making further
distinctions necessary. Accordingly, tribes are divided into clans
and then into households (fukhud; sing., fakhd).
Households include groups of single families. Together this extended
group of families calls itself a tribe. Each tribe has certain
characteristics, such as different speech, dress, and customs.
But since the 1950s, speech has become less of a distinguishing
factor because of the fluidity of gulf society.
The name of a tribe may also reflect some past event. For example,
the name Utub--the tribe to which the Al Sabah of Kuwait
and the Al Khalifa of Bahrain belong--comes from the Arabic word
for wander (atab). In 1744 the tribe "wandered" out of
the desert and into the gulf area and became the Utub.
Two of the most important tribal groups in Arabia are the Qahtan
and the Adnan, whose roots stem from the belief that tribes in
the north of the peninsula were descended from Adnan, one of Ismail's
sons, and that tribes in the south were descended from Qahtan,
one of Noah's sons. People in the gulf often attribute the structure
of tribal alliances to this north-south distinction, and many
still classify their tribes as Adnani or Qahtani.
Historically, the tribal nature of society has occasioned petty
warfare in the gulf. Arab tribes have attacked each other since
before Islam, but tribal customs have prevented these attacks
from turning into random violence. Clans, however, have defected
from their tribe and made alliances with other tribes, and tribes
have sometimes banded together to form a more powerful group.
Moreover, although some tribes may trace their lineage to some
heroic figure, the real identity of the tribe lies in the people
that currently compose it. In the tribe, an individual bases his
or her sense of self-esteem on the honor of the tribe as a whole.
In Arabia it was impossible to survive in the desert alone, and
so families banded together to find water and move their flocks
to new grazing lands. Once they established the necessary resources
through collective effort, they guarded them jealously and refused
to share them with outsiders. It therefore became necessary to
set up boundaries between members of the group or between the
tribe and outsiders. The tribe worked to restrict membership in
order to preserve its sense of solidarity. As a result, birth
into the right family tended to be the only way to become a member
of a tribe. Marriage sometimes extended the tribal line beyond
blood lines, but, in general, people tended to marry within the
tribe and only went outside to establish alliances with other
The emphasis on the group precluded the rise of a strong leader.
Accordingly, tribal leadership is often described as "the first
among equals," suggesting a collective leadership in which one
among a number of leaders is recognized as the most authoritative.
This principal leader must continue to consult with his lesser
colleagues and so rules by consensus.
An extension of this pattern of leadership is the concept of
leading families within the tribe. Although tribalism tends to
discourage inherited authority, traditions of leadership are nevertheless
passed down, and tribes expect that certain families will furnish
them with leaders generation after generation. This pattern occurred
when tribes that were previously nomadic settled down in oases
or coastal areas. It then became more likely that certain families
would accumulate wealth, whether in food or in goods, and with
this wealth would increase their authority. In this way, the individual
families that in the 1990s controlled the gulf states established
themselves around 1800. Relations with the British and the discovery
of oil continued that process.
The existence of these ruling families is perhaps the most obvious
manifestation of Arab tribalism in gulf society in 1993. Another
manifestation is the collective manner in which these families
rule. In most of these states, the position of amir is not passed
from father to son but alternates among different parallel patrilineal
lines. This makes the appointment of the next amir an open issue
and something on which the entire family must agree. The family
also participates in the various consultative bodies that exist
to advise the leader. Such bodies, which include figures outside
the ruling family, help to institutionalize the first among equals
system in these states.
The way that government officials are appointed reflects the
importance of tribal connections. Members of the ruling family
are accommodated first, followed by families and tribes with whom
the rulers have been traditionally allied. In Bahrain, for example,
the ruling Al Khalifa have given the major positions in the bureaucracy
to Sunni Arabs from tribes that helped them rule the island in
the nineteenth century. The Al Khalifa have given lesser positions
to Shia Arabs from merchant families with whom they engaged in
the pearl industry but with whom they had no tribal alliances.
But the Al Khalifa have been reluctant to give positions of authority
to Shia farmers of Iranian descent to whom they had neither tribal
nor economic ties.
Tribal cohesiveness is also reflected in the efforts of the gulf
states to restrict citizenship. The gulf has always been relatively
cosmopolitan, and its port cities have included Arab Shia from
Iraq, freed slaves from Africa, Indian pearl traders, and Iranian
farmers and merchants, in addition to tribal Sunni Arabs. (In
1939, for example, before the oil boom started, 39 percent of
Qatar's population was non-Arab.) The dominant Arab tribes have
accommodated many of these groups, and those who arrived in the
region before 1930 became full citizens of the gulf states, albeit
without the connections of tribal Arabs. The tremendous influx
since 1940, however, has caused the naturally restrictive nature
of tribal society to reassert itself to prevent a further dilution
of tribal identities.
Ironically, those foreigners closest to the tribal Arabs, the
nontribal Arabs, represent the greatest threat. Only Arabs from
other Arab states might conceivably stay in the gulf and expect
to be citizens. Others, even Muslims from the coasts of Pakistan
and India, whose history is intertwined with that of the gulf,
would have a difficult time arguing in the twentieth century that
they should be citizens of an Arab state.
Modern Arab politics, however, often speaks of a single Arab
nation in which all Arabs might be citizens. This has led to the
notion that Arabs should have rights in the gulf states simply
because of their ethnicity. The continuing exodus of millions
of Palestinian Arabs since 1948, and their subsequent residence
throughout the Arab world, has added urgency to the demand that
individual Arab states define their qualifications for citizenship.
Many Arabs argue that Palestinians in particular, but other Arabs
as well, should be accepted as citizens in the gulf. Gulf leaders
have understandably opposed this for fear that nontribal Arabs
would challenge traditional ways of rule. Although people from
all over the world may come to the gulf to work, sovereignty and
citizenship are closely guarded by the predominantly tribal population
that has its roots in the Arabian Peninsula. In this way, the
Persian Gulf coast has preserved its ties with the Arab interior
that form the essence of its identity.
* * *
The literature on Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman may
be divided into two groups: books on Oman and books on the rest
of the gulf states. Calvin Allen has a relatively brief study
of the modern history of Oman entitled Oman: The Modernization
of the Sultanate. John C. Wilkinson has written a number
of scholarly studies on Oman, including his recent work, The
Imamate Tradition of Oman. This is an excellent and detailed
study of most aspects of Omani history.
For the rest of the gulf, a number of brief studies exist, of
which the most recent is The Arab Gulf and the Arab World,
a collection of articles on various aspects of modern gulf life
edited by B.R. Pridham; it contains little on the history of the
region. For more historical background, the reader may consult
an older but more substantial collection edited by Alvin Cottrell
entitled The Persian Gulf States. Further history can
be found in Donald Hawley's The Trucial States.
Of books on particular countries or issues, the best is Fuad
Khuri's Tribe and State in Bahrain, which considers the
social, religious, and ethnic divisions of the island nation.
A recent brief work on the UAE by Malcolm C. Peck, The United
Arab Emirates, is very good. Abdulrasool al-Mossa's study,
Immigrant Labor in Kuwait, provides a description of
the situation of foreign workers in the gulf. Religious disturbances
in the gulf are discussed in relevant chapters of Robin Wright's
Sacred Rage. (For further information and complete citations,
Data as of January 1993