Tribal Roots of the UAE
United Arab Emirates. Each word provides a clue to why this postage-stamp corner of the world presents such an oversized profile on the international stage. What makes them so different from other Arab states? How did they manage to unite in a culture that reveres clan warfare? And what exactly is an emirate anyway?
Bedouin is the plural form of the word bedu, which translates roughly to desert wanderer. That’s a pretty apt description of the provenance and purpose of the original nomadic families. Born in the pre-Islamic Arabian Desert, the Bedouin eventually spread to the Sahara, the Najd, the Negev, the Sinai and beyond. From the Atlantic Ocean east to the Levant, they grew their herds, established their turf, built families into clans and clans into tribes.
Clans control wells and therefore land for grazing. Their families are related through complex alliances controlled by intermarriage, especially between cousins. Clans making up a tribe can trace a common lineage back for several generations. This blood relationship is the element that binds together key elements of the Bedouin culture.
Loyalty, obedience, generosity, hospitality, honor, cunning, and revenge are the tenets of Bedouin society and behavior. To violate this code is to damage the strength of the clan and bring dishonor to the family. Of these, the highest virtue is hospitality. Born of necessity and driven by the harsh life of the desert, any stranger--friend or foe--can appear at a tent and expect three days of food, shelter, and safe passage.
Hospitality must be offered not just willingly, but generously. Beginning with coffee, which is a Bedouin ritual and the source of great pride; the visitor is served as often as he will drink. This is followed by as sumptuous a meal as the family can provide, even if it means emptying their own shelves and borrowing from neighbors. As a final act of generosity, clothes of the deceased are left atop the grave for the benefit of a needy traveler.
Each family group has a highly developed sense of honor and loyalty, including the morals of family members—rules of life that are defended with blood vengeance if necessary.
Like virtually all nomadic peoples, Bedouin families live in tents, their tents adapted to their climate and to the materials most readily found in their universe. The Bedouin tent is long and low and usually black. It is constructed of goat and camel hair cloth, woven by the women of the family. The hair swells in the rain making the tent watertight. The sides can be rolled up to allow breezes in during the heat of the day. A tent can be put up or taken down (also by the women) in about an hour.
The average family tent is divided into two sections. The men’s section is for receiving guests. The rest of the family lives, sleeps and cooks in the women’s section. For Bedouin higher on the socio-economic scale, tents can become considerably more elaborate and may have a generator, a TV and other appliances, and a vehicle parked outside.
Every Arab country in the Middle East has Bedouin tribes. In many countries, modernization has relegated them to second-class citizenship although, oddly, Bedouin virtues are held up as a model of pure Islamic culture. Only in the areas where Bedouin were the original inhabitants, have they maintained a degree of importance, even leadership.
In Arabia and the Gulf States there are more than 100 tribes, a few numbering as many as 100,000 members. Descendents of these great tribes are the rulers of the modern kingdoms they’ve inherited. The ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and the other Gulf States can trace their lineage back to the great tribes of the ancient days. But, without the oil that has created their wealth, they may still be living in tents instead of palaces and high rises.
The oil discoveries that made it all possible could easily have consigned these former desert dwellers to lives of exploitation and subjugation by the dominant world powers that sought to control their resources. But in 1971 one enlightened leader, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was able to convince the emirs of seven neighboring tribal states to form the United Arab Emirates. It was the first and possibly last time Bedouin tribes had been formed into a large-scale political organization.
The new leaders of these powerful city-states are still tribal in their social structures, but they are also university educated, socially liberal, economically conservative, fans of capitalism, and friends of the West. Without them, this whole region might have sunk into chaos long ago.