by miriam cooke

This memo was presented part of a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 13 June 2018, looking at Tribe and State in the Middle East.

Camels at the Shahaniya camel racing track, with ‘robot jockeys’ now commonly used in the sport throughout the Gulf. Source: Omar Chatriwala, Flickr

During the past twenty years, tribes, tribal structures, functions and leadership have attracted the attention of writers in various disciplines, including anthropology, political science, pop psychology and business. Whereas social scientists argue over the vexed meanings of tribe and how tribes function in modern contexts, do-it-yourself psychology and business texts have no problem with these issues. Their notion of the tribe is straightforward; it affords a brilliant model for life and economic success. Recently published mass-market books recommend emulating a formula derived from their definitions of tribal structure to help individuals and businesses thrive. Dave Logan et al., for example, assert that effective tribal leadership “helped humans survive the last ice age, build farming communities, and, later, cities. Birds flock, fish school, people ‘tribe’… The members of your tribe are probably programmed in your cell phone and in your email address book… Tribes are the basic building block of any large human effort” (Tribal Leadership 2008 cited in cooke, Tribal Modern 2014). For Jonah Goldberg, the tribe materializes a natural, perennial and universal human desire to belong to homogeneous groups. There is, he writes, “something deeply attractive” (Suicide of the West: Rebirth of Tribalism 2018, 13) about cooperation that includes irresistible urges to exclude, to punish and to vaunt identity. Our primordial “inner tribesman” apparently values power, loyalty, reciprocity, and honour, and rejects pluralism because it “requires tolerance and forces us to open ourselves up to the possibility that our identity is not the only true or right one” (62). Tribes reject democracy because it threatens tribal power politics. Theorists validating Goldberg’s tribe-as-natural argument include: Charles Darwin for whom “The tribe that works together survives to pass on its genes”; Elias Canetti whose crowds draw on “tribal passion”; and Karl Marx who had hoped that if “the workers of the world, bound together in tribal solidarity, they could overthrow their masters.” Although Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima is not cited, his notion of tribal solidarity or ‘asabiya rings loud. These contemporary and classical writers who invoke the tribe are interested less in the actual structure and formation of specific tribes, and more in the idea of the tribe.

As a student of Arab cultures, I, too, am concerned with this idea of the tribe but I understand it to function in an unprecedented way in today’s Arab Gulf. In Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf (2014), I analyze the recent emergence of tribal identities as part of a distinctive geo-political brand that has shot Gulf countries to international prominence. From an economic perspective, it is noteworthy that more millionaires are flocking to the UAE than anywhere else in the world.

Between 2003 and 2010, I visited the Gulf region on several occasions and spent extended periods in Qatar. I was struck by the oddly harmonious juxtaposition of ultramodern starchitecture and cutting-edge cultural projects alongside tribal emblems and values. Why, I wondered, did mega-rich Gulf Arabs intent on rapid modernization and playing an active role on the global stage insist on their tribal identities? I was surprised when Gulf Arab students respond positively to my question about tribal and modern fitting together.

In a situation where foreigners vastly outnumber Gulf Arabs, the need to distinguish themselves and their rights to uncontested natural resources has become urgent. The tribal provides the key distinguishing feature. Tribal in today’s Gulf is not traditional, not primitive; not natural; not perennial; not anti-modern. The tribal shapes a unique brand that modern Arab Gulf nation-states are marketing.

How are we to understand the tribal in the brand? It marks privilege, unique rights to natural resources and citizenship, but only for those with a pure past. If a pure past free of outsiders does not exist, it can be created. Heritage projects help to erase pre-national hybrid ethnoscapes marked by millennia of exchanges between Mesopotamia and Indian Ocean (attested to by the discovery of second millennium BCE Dilmun seals); Portuguese; Ottomans; British, Indian subjects of Raj, and French pearl merchants.

Pure blood refines this citizenship. The new, racially determined nation-states hold the monopoly on exclusion that may include arbitrary revoking of citizenship for those no longer deemed worthy of membership or absolute denial of citizenship to foreigners whose blood is not pure. Writing about newly valorized tribal identities in Sub-Saharan Africa, John and Jean Comaroff explain that when ethnically defined populations identify a stake profit-sharing corporations, “their terms of membership tend to become an object of concern, regulation, and contestation. And the more they do, the greater is their proclivity to privilege biology and birthright, genetics and consanguinity, over social and cultural criteria of belonging” (Ethnicity, INC. 2009). This is what is happening in the Arab Gulf.

Islam deepens claims to citizenship and its exclusive right to ownership of oil-rich land and gas-rich sea. In a 2010 survey that my Virginia Commonwealth University-Qatar students conducted with their peers, the question of where the individual’s tribe came from and when, often elicited the response: Western Arabia and the seventh century. Tracing origins, even if indirectly, to the Prophet Muhammad enhanced elite identity.

The tribal constitutes the exceptional element in Gulf Arabs’ modern identity. How can this tribal be braided with the modern (too often reduced to Western) in such a way that it engineers the tribal modern brand?

It is easy to see this braiding in heritage sites like Qatar’s national museum, which fuses the desert rose with a spaceship visual, and in sports, where the highly technologized camel racing that sits comfortably with the FIFA World Cup plans for 2022. However, the tribal modern brand is harder to theorize. In Tribal Modern, I argue that the Arab Gulf brand needs to be understood through a new epistemological optic that I call barzakh logic. Barzakh is a Qur’anic term that designates the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter that contains both even as both are absent. Similarly, suspension, meeting and separation between tribal and modern characterize Arab Gulf culture today. Retaining independence and specificities, each shapes the other in a dynamic, cultural-political field that allows neither compromise nor erasure. The tribal and the modern fashion the unique identity and power of today’s Gulf Arabs.


miriam cooke is Braxton Craven Professor Emerita of Arab Cultures at Duke University. She has written on the intersection of gender and war in modern Arabic literature, constructions of Islamic feminism, Arab cultural studies, Syria, and the networked connections among Arabs and Muslims around the world. Her recent books include Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf and Dancing in Damascus: Creativity, Resilience, and the Syrian Revolution.


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