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Geoffrey Martin

January 28th, 2022

Book Review – ‘Tribalism and Political Power in the Gulf’ by Alanoud el-Sharekh and Courtney Freer

2 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Geoffrey Martin

January 28th, 2022

Book Review – ‘Tribalism and Political Power in the Gulf’ by Alanoud el-Sharekh and Courtney Freer

2 comments | 6 shares

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

by Geoffrey Martin

Alanoud al-Sharekh and Courtney Freer’s co-written Tribalism and Political Power in the Gulf: State-Building and National Identity in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE is the newest book on identity and state-building in the Arab Gulf. The authors focus on how and why tribes (qabīla) have shaped and were molded into the political structures of Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

They claim to be addressing gaps in the literature by focusing on practical explanations to demonstrate how tribes act as modern actors. They argue that much of the literature on the Gulf claims political life is underdeveloped (except Kuwait), that government-tribe relations are fundamentally conflicted and tribes are ‘social formulations’ rather than ones with essential political roles. In particular, they criticise the older rentier literature, which argues that social groups such as qabīla should not have agency because of government cooptation.

Tribal institutions, they argue, are under-institutionalised and based on informal institutions which offer ‘important means of bypassing cumbersome bureaucratic structures present in many small rentier states, in addition to providing strong and reliable social networks’ (p. 1). These include the tribal majlis or dīwāniyya (p. 1). In terms of case selection, they analyse how citizen-state relations are shaped by rentier states with strong central governments and salient tribal identities. They chose the three case countries because they ‘demonstrate a spectrum of political activity among the GCC rentiers’ (p. 17). Kuwaiti tribes act as formal political actors and parties. Qatari tribes are more personalised and centralised around the ruling Al Thani family. The UAE, with seven emirates and six ruling families, has made the most effort to control competing tribes and tribal influence, asserting state power (p. 15-16). The authors seek to demonstrate that qabīla in the twenty-first century remains potentially the most crucial determinant of political behaviour in the Arab Gulf.

al-Sharekh and Freer emphasise areas of tribal influence: the social and political sphere, the electoral arena and social media and its effects on non-tribal identities. It is divided into seven chapters. Chapter Two explains the political role of tribal bedouins (badū) with the ruling families and merchants (haḍar) of Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE before and after statehood. They analyse citizenship laws, which help prove that states purposefully segregated and perpetuated badū identities. These laws reproduced a state-led tribal structure of ‘first among equals’ (p. 23). Chapter Three looks at the way tribes have evolved since statehood. There were three interlinked dynamics: desert culture, customs and political practices; mercantile traditions of the haḍar; and the immense changes of state led modernisation after oil (p. 47). al-Sharekh and Freer discuss how some aspects of tribal customs such as nomadism have been lost and were replaced by ‘so-called bedouin-lite traditions’ which ‘memorialise their countries’ tribal pasts’ often through state-sanctioned heritage projects (p. 63-64).  The authors argue that ‘governments’ selective use of tribes has resulted in both the fragmentation and bolstering of national identity’ (p. 64).

In Chapter Four, the co-authors analyse how citizens and the state define, produce, promote and perpetuate badū identity. They compare and contrast the tension between grassroots identity versus state-led heritage projects, which often represent badū using tribal clichés such as allegiance or lineage (p. 94). In Chapter Five, they examine these stereotypes, which are used by the ruling elite to enhance their legitimacy. Although tribes are not the central unit of political organisation, their flexibility and durability have meant they are one of the only tolerated civic associations in the region (p. 95). Chapter Six scrutinises electoral tribalism and the degree to which tribal identity influences voter preferences for the Kuwaiti National Assembly, Qatari Central Municipal Council and the Emirati Federal National Council. The authors argue that voters are deeply influenced by tribal forces, especially the strongest fakhith (segment within the tribe) which forces its preferences on other members (p. 135). According to the authors, these tribal organisers may hinder the development of democratic practices and ideological politics.

The final chapter looks at how tribes have used social media. Social media has become a ‘game-changer’ in the region, exacerbated by COVID-19, which has ‘forced more and more aspects of social and political life online’ and led to a ‘virtual street’ (p. 137). Tribes and badū are active online, both as cohesive units and as individuals, and have proven ‘a virtual extension of their territory online’ (p. 139).

The book is well written, clearly argued and provides a good outline of the three case studies’ histories. The book is a welcome addition to the literature on the region and would be suitable for any undergraduate introductory course on the subject. This is especially pertinent for those interested in Kuwaiti politics as both authors are Kuwait specialists.

There are some serious issues with the book. The most glaring issue is methodological. The core chapters rely heavily on secondary sources, namely quotes by other scholars, diminishing the authors’ collective voice and original contribution. While criticising the literature in Chapter One and Two for being Western-centric, the authors rely almost exclusively on the very same English sources to make their argument. The study would have benefitted from greater use of Arabic sources and interviews with tribe members themselves, adding methodological rigour. In Kuwait’s case, the majority of interviews are with Kuwaiti academics, instead of interviews with members of tribes, which would have made for stronger subject matter.

Overall, the reviewer enjoyed reading the book, but was left feeling disappointed that the authors did not spend more time investigating what badū think about these historical processes and let them share their own relevant lived experiences.

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About the author

Geoffrey Martin

Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is also an entrepreneur and economic analyst based in Kuwait, focusing on political economy, food logistics, and labour law in Kuwait and the wider GCC. He tweets at @bartybartin

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