TRIBE, TRIBALISM AND CULTURAL CHANGE—KUWAIT 2008
By Kevin Anthony Stoda
On April 1, 2008 the AWARE Center in Surra, Kuwait hosted a “diwaniya” (i.e. a meeting) which focused on the evolving tribal system in Kuwait and its current impact on Kuwaiti society. The presenter that evening was anthropologist Dr. Mohammed Al-Haddad of Kuwait University, who has published extensively on the phenomena of tribalism for many decades. The presentation and subsequent discussion was considered fairly timely as tribalism significantly effects all Kuwaiti elections, and national elections for the country’s National Assembly are to be held on the 17th of May. (The Emir of Kuwait had closed the parliament down and had called for new elections two weeks earlier.)
Within days of the parliament being closed down, tribes, tribal politicians and other local kingmakers were already holding illegal gatherings to determine who would run and who would win. In this way, these tribal political figures function as a cartel group in the five Kuwaiti governates, ensuring tribal—rather than civil—dominance of the popular election of officials in one of the two wealthiest countries on the planet.
This time around, though, the Kuwaiti government has been playing tougher than usual with the tribes and tribesmen and has actually arrested several tribal leaders who have openly broken Kuwaiti election laws. This led to tribesmen, who over several days had witnessed arrests of their members and leadership, to confront violently the government’s criminal investigators on March 26, 2008—i.e. with the hopes of freeing the tribesmen. (There was another such violent confrontation yesterday evening.)
With all of this recent focus on tribes and tribalism, a very large Kuwait audience overfilled the diwaniya hall at the AWARE Center on April 1, 2008, in order to learn the basics on tribalism in Kuwait from a renowned expert in the field.DEFINITIONS OF “TRIBE”
The anthropologist, Dr. Muhammed Al-Haddad, sees “tribalism” as a descriptive term to identify a certain kind of social group. In this social group kinship principles are dominant and thus rule behavior and much of the interpersonal interaction. In this case of “a tribe as a social group”, blood brotherhood (or relationship by birth) is the key to the relationship among members of the tribal group.
In short, genealogical origin dominates the relationships. This genealogical relationship is the basic rationale for the identity of individuals in the group. Such as situation is common in other parts of the world, from Iraq to Sudan to Somalia or Nigeria and Kenya—where bitter fighting has taken place in recent years among tribes. However, in Kuwait such violence has not been the case in general.
Tribal identity is a transnational phenomena in the Arab Gulf region, which is to be expected as these tribal genealogical groups are founded on Bedouin movements and traditions dating back millennia. This is still the case, even though tribes, such as the Kuwaiti ruling family, i.e. the al-Sabah tribe, basically had settled in what is Kuwait over 240 years ago and haven’t been generally observed as Bedouins since that time.
Likewise, mercantile classes include other tribes in Kuwait. This mercantile class of tribesmen have been since subsumed under the title of “urbans”—which other Kuwait tribesmen use to identify (with somewhat disdain) these more cosmopolitan Kuwaiti peoples. In short, every Kuwaiti citizen ostensibly belongs to one tribe or another, but the “urbans” prefer not to be associated in the minds of others as tribesmen.
KEY QUESTIONS ON KUWAITI TRIBES
In this introductory speech on tribes in Kuwait, Dr. Al-Haddad asked the following questions: (1) Has “tribalization” weakened in Kuwait in recent times? (2) What has the Kuwaiti government done to weaken tribalism? (3) What has tribalism done for Kuwait? (4) What has happened to tribalism in terms of integration into Kuwait?
Dr. Al-Haddad noted that there are other definitions of tribe than the anthropological one he prefers to use. Other concepts of tribe include the idea of equating “nomads with the word tribe”. Other definitions claim that “tribes are Bedouin” or “Bedouins as equivalent to tribe”.
However, Dr. Al-Haddad notes that in Kuwait these definitional entities are in no way equal to each other in the 21st century version of tribalism in Kuwait.
Today, as a matter of fact, most of Gulf Arab tribalism from Iraq to Kuwait to Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE (and most of Saudi Arabia and beyond) do not reflect traditional concepts of nomadic life . That is, as tribes emerged from the desert, Dr. Al-Haddad notes, they left nomadism behind.
On the other hand, Dr. Al-Haddad emphasizes, “The best social organization to arise in the desert is tribalism.” When the tribes of the Arabian peninsula emerged from the desert and left their nomadic practices and way of life behind, the social structure of tribalism remained. That is, they brought the rules of behavior of group to the more urban world they finally settled and have adapted to.
In Kuwait today, tribalism is notable only by the individual’s preferred self-identification, “I am from ‘A’ tribe.” Or “I have a genealogical identification in common with others in Tribe ‘A’.” Blood brotherhood means related by birth and identity comes from one’s tribal heritage.
Naturally, other definitions of tribe in anthropology involve a group’s:
-feelings of unity,
-awareness of belonging
-consciousness of being of one like kind
-common enforcement of leadership and administration.
However, the traditional descriptions preferred by most anthropologists are not, as Dr. Al-Haddad re-emphasized, is often not practicable in Kuwait. For example, there are few language distinctions and few clothing differences among the some 40 or 50 tribes in Kuwait today.
Moreover, the traditional Sunni and Shia distinctions found throughout the Arab world are not particularly relevant to tribes—both in reference to tribes existing across borders or even within some of the Gulf states, like Iraq and Kuwait. For example, one tribe in Kuwait may be Sunni while their cousins across the border in Iraq are perhaps predominantly Shia.
One other definition common in social research in referring to tribes historically which is not applicable to the dozens of tribes in Kuwait includes the “concept of territorial contiguity”. E.g., whereas in a few parts of Kuwait, certain tribes are scattered in specific areas, such as in Jahra area and in Ahmady governate, other tribes are found scattered throughout the urbanized landscape of more metropolitan Kuwait.
This is why, Dr. Al-Haddad notes, it is likely that tribes may come to win every single seat in the country’s coming parliamentary elections, despite the presence of numerous non-aligned (non-tribal) urban candidates running for office in May 2008. Moreover, they will succeed despite the fact that the Emir and government of Kuwait are trying desperately to reduce the influence of tribalism on politics, economy, and society of Kuwait.
In a sense, the most straight forward and omnipresent manifestation of a tribe in Kuwait is the political organization of a tribe.
Regardless of which township a tribe member lives in or regardless of where he or she is working, the head of the tribe will be making the decisions. These tribal leaders are the ones, for example, who call together the current illegal meetings, primaries, and elections the population of Kuwait are observing this month.
In many of these meetings tribes are acting clearly as though they were a political party—even thought the Kuwaiti constitution has outlawed such political organizations since the country’s inception in 1962. These tribes also organize election primaries which are alos fixed—this process is also against the law.
Many tribes even join together, as political combines across the planet do, and have attempted insure again in 2008 that no women will win a seat in parliament.
Unlike in parts of tribal Africa and Asia, Kuwaiti tribal adjustment to ever changing and globalizing environments has almost always taken place almost entirely in an urban environment—although many tribes do hold meetings (or diwaniyas) under tents on occasion.
However, more similar to gypsies in religious tradition, Kuwaiti tribes as a whole are historically less religious–or at least less openly devoutly religious—than are some other parts of the Arab world. This is reflective of their nomadic ancestry where concept of God and one’s relationship to God were more personal—i.e. taking place in the desert under open skies rather than under a mosque or in a large open city square with large numbers of others all around them.
Therefore, many tribal customs and traditions are wrapped up in their individual and group religious identities.
On the other hand, the peoples of the desert were also originally more generous and until recent years this had been reflected in the character of many tribes that one visited in Kuwait. (Ask the average ex-pat in Kuwait in 2008 whether this generosity is evident, and most would say they were unaware of a tradition of great generosity reminiscent of nomad communities.)
According to Dr. Al-Haddad, it is apparently also not so clear these days as to how to be quickly able to distinguish one tribe from another. As noted above, very few tribesmen demonstrate clothing differences which had been used in days of old to be the norm in the desert areas when wandering centuries ago.
That is why, for example, when a man from Tribe “A” enters a government building and seeks preferential treatment from a fellow tribesman, he may be not able to identify the tribesmen who will bend-over-backwards to help him.
Dr. Al-Haddad shared an event he once observed in a large busy office one day a few years back: “A member from Tribe ‘A’ entered through the doorway and scanned the room. After a while of standing in a line, the man moved to the center of the room and shouted loudly, ‘Who here working is from Tribe A?” There was silence as all people looked around at the audacity of the man. However, a few moments later, a man in a far corner waived the man over and identified himself as a member of Tribe ‘A’. That clerk took the fellow tribesman’s paperwork and promised to do everything—fill out every form—for the audacious tribesman.”
Dr. Al-Haddad stated, “The tribesman who works in that office must help his fellow tribesmen or he will find himself ostracized in his own family group.”
It is such a role which tribalism plays in Kuwait today. It is fairly destructive to any attempts to level the playing field for all and to improve how the country functions economically, politically, socially, educationally, and developmentally.
Tribalism and traditional practices has left modern Kuwait encased in a state of bureaucratic and social backwardness at a time when national unity is required, esp. as wars and rumors of war sound from short distances away.MAKING LEADERS IN KUWAIT
Meanwhile, if a tribesmen desires to be a tribal leader, he needs to be doing the following:
(1) not violate tribal custom, i.e. help out another tribesman when asked
(2) demonstrate oneself to be of strong character
(3) be affluent economically or socially
(4) have good connections with the ruling family.
Inspiring leaders are thus observed overtime within the tribe and legitimacy is earned. So, seldom are there any major surprises in the transition from one leader to another within a tribe. (However, some tribes are more freely democratic than others. Some also intentionally rotate their leaders on an annual basis.)
This emphasis on “the leadership principle” reveals itself by the fact that many boys in school will focus on doing what they can to become seen as a leader at a very young age. This leads to the leader-inspiring youth to neglect studies for social duties undertaken to serve others in the social group.
TRIBAL IDENTITY KUWAIT FROM 1950s TILL NOW
At its independence in 1961, tribalism and Kuwait were much different than today. At that time there were only about 100,000 Kuwaitis and almost none of them had a tribal affiliation directly related to their name.
That is, only in the 1950s and 1960s had a new and important phenomena begun of renaming oneself and family by tribe had occurred.
Until then many more names were used among the various tribal members to identify themselves, their parentage, and their ancestral bloodline. However, with the oil boom and modernization of Kuwait in the 1950s, the government began issuing new birth certificates and passports.
Suddenly, tribal peoples in Kuwait determined to change their name on their paperwork to reflect their tribal affiliation. Many invited their distant relatives from across the Arabian peninsula to join the Kuwaitis in their oil-boon blessings
Meanwhile, although no state would ever intentional plant tribes or the seeds of tribalism, the Kuwait royal family and government in the 1960s indirectly encouraged tribalism to offset the power of the traditionally politically powerful urban elite of Kuwait.
Now, the country has nearly a million Kuwaitis—with tribal politics dominating the country—while urban development and economic are left in disarray.
For example, up until the 1960s and 1970s Kuwait was seen in the Gulf world as avante gard in creating a constitution and civil liberties unparalleled in the region. Nowadays, Kuwait is well behind some of the other Gulf states in political economic development—e.g. only allowing women to vote for the first time two years ago.
The problem is that the tribal leaders wanted to be in the government and wanted to be in the cabinet of ministers. This wasn’t the case in 1965 when tribal resettlement was first quietly & actively encourage to offset the liberal tendencies of urban-oriented politics & trends in Kuwait in those heady post-Independence days.
Naturally, this misjudgment by the Emir and governing elite in the 1960s has led to constant stalemates and bad governance in Kuwait over the intervening years. Tribal reality is sometimes perceived here to supersede the role of the state in too many aspects of Kuwaiti life.
Dr. Al-Haddad ended his lecture by identifying some of the key tribes of Kuwait society and politics for the audience. (In a way, it was like setting up a box score for the players before a baseball game.)
Al-Mutairy Tribe—fairly related to the royal family, scattered geographically in many voting districts, increasingly powerful politically since the 1990s.Al-Ajman
—New comer, non-homogenous, politically active, scattered geographically.
—very politically active, long time residency in Kuwait, not linked closely with royals. Al-Aneza
—Northern tribe, arrived in Kuwait about the same time as the royal family, non-scattered geographically, but less overtly political. Al-Awazan
—Outnumbered by the others, scattered densely in Salmiya and roundabouts.Al-Utaibi
—Not as large as other tribes, but prevalent around township of Khaitan.Al-Shammen
—Arrived in Kuwait and settled in north in the 19th century, less active politically than most tribes.
Dr. Al-Haddad later confirmed that there are at least three dozen other smaller tribes in Kuwait. Most create alliances to have some political weight.
In short, over the past 4 to 5 decades, political contexts in Kuwait have actually raised the tendency for an individual Kuwaiti to see him- or herself as allied with one tribe or another.
The central government has since discovered that this causes dysfunctional tendencies in the oil sector and in the government ministries, which should be taking care of the whole society. Because the government has guaranteed jobs to all citizens, the influence of the tribal connections on employment has aided in the growing sense of Kuwaitis choosing to see themselves as affiliated with one tribe or another—i.e. perhaps Kuwaitis have become more tribally oriented than during the pre-oil era.THE “URBANS”
The only major opposition to tribal control or dominance of Kuwaiti politics come from “the urbans”, i.e. Kuwaiti people who desire that tribal identity have little role to play in modern Kuwait.
They don’t like tribes because (1) tribes hinder integration of society, (2) hinder all kinds of urban, social and other development in Kuwait, and (3) hinder the functioning of the state.
The government has recently tried several tactics to reduce the role of tribablism. These tactics have included a land reform, the redistricting of political boundaries and constituencies, the prohibition of tribal elections, and offers to relocate tribesmen in a more scattered way through expensive housing programs.
However, at this juncture in history, “the urbans” have too little political clout to eradicate from bad ministries and government-owned companies the bad leadership and the tribal infightings (and tribal job placement services). These practices are time-and-again not putting the most qualified peoples in the right positions.
Many women are choosing to run under urban platforms in this election. They will not likely succeed. On the other hand, if the tribes would agree to support women more, the women representing tribal groups would likely win handily.
When asked about the future of tribalism in Kuwait, Dr. Al-Haddad noted that once the benefits of tribalism can be erased, i.e. providing jobs and connections to governments and ministries, the need for the tribe would disappear politically and economically.
He believes that in the long-run education and diminishing returns for being a tribesmen in the modern world will reduce the pull and power of tribalist tendencies in Kuwait society.
This would leave tribes only dealing with social matters and the role of the family.
Dr. Al-Haddad is hopeful that this situation will evolve slowly in Kuwait, especially with Kuwait’s youth clamoring more and more for fairer access to jobs and the opportunity to govern better than their parents and grandparents have. NO ONE MENTIONS THE OBVIOUS
As the large multinational and multicultural audience listened to Dr. Al-Haddad’s lecture that evening, no one mentioned the obvious: That is, if Kuwait would grant citizenship rights to long-time residents of Kuwait—and not base citizenship on tribal blood lines—Kuwait could become a modern state much more quickly.
There are currently 2 million non-citizens in a country of 3 million people in Kuwait.
There are probably nearly one-million people, for example, who have lived in Kuwait more than 7 years or were born here. If citizenship was granted to all these folks, the political landscape would change significantly because politicians & government would not only have to listen to tribesmen but to thousands of others in their voting districts each election period.
The conditions of the majority of people living and working in the country of Kuwait—the naturally wealthiest per square kilometer in the Gulf--would improve drastically as well. This is because political franchise would become spread out more equally throughout the society. NOTES
Garcia, Ben, “Tribalism: A Social Phenomena in Kuwait”, http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=NjI5ODA0ODEx
“Kuwait dissolves parliament, sets May 17 election date”, http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5igKC7in0Kqf2xAbW3TFF8a3ahhdA
Longva, Anh Nga, (2006) “Nationalism in Modern Guise: The Discourse of Hadher and Badu in Kuwait”, International Journal of Middle East, Cambridge University Press.
Al-Husaini, Meshari, “An Investigation Into Factors That May Contribute to School Violence in Male High Schools in Kuwait” (dissertation) http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-04272004-210004/unrestricted/MeshariDissertation.pdf
“Police use teargas to disperse tribesmen” http://www.kuwaittimes.net/read_news.php?newsid=Njc5Nzk0MjE0
Labels: tribalism tribe kuwait elections sociology anthropology politics elections social groups society Middle East