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Tribes in the Gulf: Between Electoral Manipulation and Societal Division

Research and discussion about the role of tribes in societies throughout the Arab world almost invariably invite a conflict between modernity, exemplified by the creation of a centralized, ethnically neutral state, and traditionalism, exemplified by tribal customs and autonomy. Particularly after the end of European colonialism, Arab elites promoted the notion that the key to succeeding in developing newly independent states was to remove the influence of tribes, and therefore of practices linked to tribalism. Some scholars and political theorists consider this the most important step in the long path towards modernity and development.

Indeed, while many of the decolonized nations’ development plans provided different visions for how to build a modern state, most of these plans included or were centered around eliminating tribes’ influence and ridding the society of tribal advocacy as a means of political organization. The individuals who led modernity and development plans in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s imagined that to achieve this, societies needed to dispense with tribal norms as the only way to move into sustainable development. The first development planners excluded tribes from any state-building plans, imagining that future development would not only reject them, but ignore them altogether as a concept for any social group.

The Tribes Fight Back

It has now been more than six decades since the first of these visions were established. Interestingly, after all these years, the Gulf has reached a far greater level of modernity and development, but the tribes have doggedly survived, adapting to the state’s new rules and managing to co-opt the changing developments. Kuwait, for instance, has one of the most organized and powerful electoral systems in the region, but its tribes have become an important and active format for encouraging participation in elections and influencing election results. The interaction between the election process and the tribes has even reflected changing public opinion and political views. An indicator to that is the number of parliament members representing each tribe, which changes from one election to another. Another more interesting observation has been that tribes have been more organized, and more effective in promoting their own interests, than any other type of political faction within Kuwait, including the Islamist groups which are famous for their organization and mobilization skills.

Because it is clear that the tribes are here to stay in Gulf politics, it seems strange at first glance that the GCC states continue to reject organized tribal power in the political process, despite the tribes’ continuous organized presence. The answer, perhaps, is in the backstages in decision-making in the GCC states, which usually has as a central objective, the prevention of any organized opposition to the governing class, whether tribal or political, as doing so can undermine the central state’s control and powers. The authorities in the Gulf states would rather have powerful societal parties scattered, so that they can control any new developments and the capacities of these parties.

For an example of this practice, one might look, for instance, at the incidents that are currently taking place in Qatar, and previously in Kuwait. In both nations, some tribes have been classified as “indigenous” to their respective countries – a term used now in the two legislatures to refer to tribes present in their countries before the 1990s. The problem is that the authorities in Kuwait, for instance, have used the power of tribal organizations in elections against political opposition, in a successful policy to manipulate tribes against the opposition. However, after the 1990s, this strategy was exposed, and the tribes themselves began to produce opposition figures. While these figures might not be the most fierce and outspoken among the Kuwaiti opposition, even their limited criticism of the government policies has not been accepted by the authorities, which continue to view the tribes only as a useful tool to marshal support for the authorities.

Politicizing Tribes’ Power Firesback

In the Kuwaiti case, as well as in Qatar, authorities turning against the tribes had contradictory tools, in which bureaucrats created a societal concept that divided between members of tribes and urban or rural inhabitants. Following this division, another layer was added: the national identity, which, counterintuitively, was also divisive rather than inclusive. At the time of the legislation, many groups, despite having peripheral influence, continued to influence this division without any accountability from the government. They went as far as calling for legislation that divided people based on “indigenous” or “naturalized” citizenship. In the case of Qatar, these calls have created a division in the country, only shortly after the exemplary unity between the government and society in the face of the 2017 siege of Qatar by three GCC states.

Today, a new trend is developing among Gulf authorities, who have increasingly imagined that they can recruit tribal influence and control it as they wish. In return, some of these tribes have received this intention with an increase of tribal sentiments and pride. These changes prove today that the tribes are flexible and effective political entities, and dealing with tribes on the basis of division and marginalization is a strategically unsound concept.

We must also remember that women’s vote in Kuwait’s past elections has shown a surprising degree of effectiveness. Across the board, women have committed to vote for the most capable candidates for the benefit of society, regardless of the candidates’ tribal identities. However, women’s vote might change quickly to a vote along tribal lines if authorities continue to target and marginalize members of their tribes. The continued discriminatory policies against particular tribes are extremely important for tribal unity and could be a decisive factor in diverting women’s votes into tribal commitments rather than a commitment to voting for a candidate that promotes women’s rights.

Probably all practices related to exploiting tribal power or marginalizing particular tribes are mainly promoting prejudices and division for a significant number of citizens, who are also members of state institutions – serving in the army and employed in all government roles. This strategy, if continued, will not lead to societal peace, but only to further conflict and tension.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Abdul Hadi Nasser Al-Ajmi has held many academic and research positions since 2004. He is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and Graduate Studies in the College of Arts, Kuwait University, as well as the Head of History Department and the Deanship of Consulting, Training, and Development. Dr. Al-Ajmi is also the Secretary-General of the Kuwaiti Historical Society and member of the Board of Trustees of Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah, and recently assumed the presidency of the Association of History and Antiquities of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Dr. Al-Ajmi’s research interests are in Islamic history, the concept of political and legal systems and their relations with societies. Dr. Al-Ajmi has published more than 30 researches, books, and other publications in English and Arabic in Kuwait, the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Germany, U.K., Egypt, Greece, and other countries. Dr. Al-Ajmi holds Masters of Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago and PhD in Islamic History from Durham University.

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