Tribes and Tribalism: Arabian Peninsula

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In the peninsula, a tribe is a group defined by perceived descent from a common male ancestor.

The word qabila (tribe) refers not only to a kinship group but also to a status category: qabili families claim descent from one of two eponymous Arab ancestors, Adnan or Qahtan, and feel themselves to be distinct from and superior to the nontribal khadiri, freeborn people who cannot claim such descent. The khadiri included most of the tradesmen, artisans, merchants, and scholars of pre-oil Arabia.

People of qabili status divide themselves into superior and inferior tribes, with the former able to claim purity in blood and origin (asl). The most prominent of the superior tribes of Arabia are the Aniza, Shammar, Harb, Mustayr, Ajman, Dhafir, Banu Khalid, Banu Hajir, al-Murrah, Qahtan, Utayba, Dawasir, Sahul, Manasir, Banu Yas, Sibay, Qawasim, Banu Yam, Zaʾab, and Banu Tamim. The main tribes considered inferior are the Awazim, Rashayda, Hutaym, Aqayl, and Sulubba. The Sulubba, who traveled the desert as tinkers and metalworkers in service to the more affluent bedouin, were at the bottom of the tribal social scale.

Marriage between individuals of qabila and khadiri status, and between individuals of superior and inferior tribes, is frowned upon. Since the qabili claim to status is dependent upon purity of descent through the paternal line, the children of such a marriage would suffer the taint of mixed blood and reflect on the status of the tribe as a whole. These status barriers to marriage are beginning to break down in contemporary Saudi Arabia as access to education and economic advantage have created new status categories, which are beginning to compete with tribal affiliation and are undermining its importance in the social hierarchy.

The proportion of the population of Saudi Arabia that claims a tribal affiliation is unknown. Nearly all nomadic people are organized in tribal associations, and in 1950 Saudi Arabia's nomadic population was estimated at 50 percent. Since, historically, branches of tribal groups have lived in agricultural settlements at least part of the year or were permanently settled in towns, an estimate (according to a study done in the late 1970s) that the proportion of the population who claim a tribal affiliation could be as high as 80 percent would seem reasonable. A more recent study, however, suggests that the bulk of the settled population in Najd were nontribal khadiri, many of whom intermarried with the abd, or black slaves. Since the major cities of the HijazJidda and Meccaand the towns of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf have long attracted foreigners, it is likely that the proportion of the contemporary Saudi population claiming a tribal affiliation is far smaller.

Structurally, nomadic tribal groups are organized by patrilineal descent, which unites individuals in increasingly larger segments. The smallest functional unit is the hamula (lineage), which consists of three to seven generations of one family related through the paternal line. Since lineage members are patrilineal cousins, the hamula is also referred to as one's ibn amm (father's brother's son), or ahl (people). The residential unit within the lineage is the bayt (house or tent), usually consisting of members of a nuclear family, including wife or wives and children.

Members of a single lineage usually camp close to one another and herd their animals as a unit. The lineage shares joint responsibility for avenging wrongs suffered by its members and pays compensation for any caused by its members. Although tribes may differ in status, all lineages within a given tribe are considered equals. Water wells, aside from the newer deep wells drilled by the government, are held in common by lineages. Among nomads, lineage membership is the basis of summer camps, and all animals, though they are owned by individual households, bear the lineage's brand. In terms of social relationships, access to government bureaucracy, and economic well-being, connection with the lineage is the most important relationship for the individual member of a tribe.

Above the level of lineage there are larger segments that together make up the tribe. The fakhd (thigh) consists of a number of lineages that together control pasture and wells in the tribal area, while the ashira (plural ashaʾir ) consisting of numerous fakhds, is the largest segment below the tribe. While the system allows lineages to locate themselves genealogically relative to other groups in the same tribe, in general the larger the tribal segment, the smaller its function in the daily life of the individual.

In eastern Arabia, there is a recognized division among tribal groups based on perceived origin: the Yamani (or Qahtani) who predominate in Oman are believed to have emigrated in ancient times from Yemen in the south, while the Adnani (or Nizari) tribessettled in northern Oman, the Trucial coast, Bahrain, and Qatarare believed to have come from the north and are considered racially less "pure" than those from the south. Most of the tribal groups in Qatar, despite their common origin, are also located throughout eastern Arabia. The ruling family of the State of Qatar are the Al Thani, originally part of the Banu Tamim tribe of central Arabia who arrived in Qatar in the early seventeenth century. The Manasir, one of the most widespread tribes of eastern Arabia, are mostly bedouin and range from the al-Buraymi oasis across the United Arab Emi-rates to Qatar and al-Hasa in the west, with some residing in Sharjah and Raʾs al-Khayma, and in the al-Shafra and al-Liwa oases in western Abu Dhabi. Some sections of the formerly powerful al-Naʿim tribe of Oman reside in Qatar as well as in the rest of eastern Arabia. The Quabysat section of the Banu Yas Tribe tried unsuccessfully in the early twentieth century to settle at Khawar al-Udayd, a marshy inlet at the eastern base of the Qatar peninsula.

In Saudi Arabia, a new national consciousness to compete with tribal identities is starting to emerge as the centralized state undercuts tribal autonomy, sedentarization undermines the economic benefits of tribal organization, and children are exposed to a common government-imposed school curriculum. Tribal affiliation, however, especially for nomadic people, plays a pivotal role in relations between individuals and the central government. Since the mid-1980s, the central government has assumed the right to officially designate tribal leaders who may act as representatives on behalf of tribal members' interests. These leaders are expected to work through district amirs and governors and to deal with such issues as education, agricultural development, assistance in legal matters, transportation and communication improvement, welfare and social assistance, and helping to attain citizenship privileges.

For many tribal groups such as the al-Murrah, the National Guards have institutionalized tribal solidarity and strengthened tribal ties to the central government. Membership in individual National Guards units is based on tribal affiliation, and leadership of each tribal unit can be synonymous with traditional tribal leadership. Through the National Guards, former nomads receive training and the potential for higher-level careers, instruction in military sciences, housing, and health and social services for dependents and families.

For those tribal people who continue to live as bedouins, the government also provides water taps; market areas in cities, towns, and villages that are used in marketing livestock; veterinary services; subsidized fodder; and buildings for storage. It has been estimated that only 5 percent of the Saudi population today remain wholly nomadic.

Most tribes are affiliated with the House of Saʿud through marriage ties as the product of Ibn Saʿud's deliberate policy of cementing ties between himself and the tribal groups. Today the political alliance between tribe and state is being reinforced through marriage between tribal women and government officials as well as Saudi princes. Among the al-Saʿar bedouin in southern Arabia, for example, these marriages are encouraged by tribal leaders as a means of ensuring ongoing access to governmental leaders.

see also abd al-aziz ibn saʿud al saʿud; ajman; al thani family; najd.


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Hopkins, Nicholas. "Class and State in Rural Arab Communities." In Beyond Coercion, edited by Adeed Dawisha and I. Zartman. London and New York: Croom Helm, 1980.

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eleanor abdella doumato

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Tribes and Tribalism: Arabian Peninsula

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