Tribalism: A Modern Approach to the Gulf

By Hilary Hesse

Tribal Modern
By Miriam Cooke
University of California Press,  2014

By way of geological fluke, one of the world’s most forbidding regions improbably became one of its wealthiest: in 1908 oil was discovered in the Middle East. The winners of this natural resource lottery – in particular, the newly established Gulf sheikdoms of Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE–thereafter underwent a disorientingly fast social and economic restructuring whose tremors continue to be felt today. Once sprinkled with only wandering tribes and camels, these arid lands now showcase some of the world’s most spectacular cities and expensive cars. And, yet, signs abound that the tribal not only endures, with Bedouin tents still prominent throughout the desert, but that the idea of the tribe is increasing in importance, with Bedouin culture becoming a cornerstone of national image.

In her book “Tribal Modern,” distinguished Duke University professor of Arab Studies Miriam Cooke challenges the humdrum assumption that lingering tribalism reflects a failure to progress. Attributing this misconception to “popular thinking and media hype,” she argues that the tribal has actually “enabled a form of hypermodernity.” The tribal and the modern thus live in symbiosis, “each reinforcing the other,” with Gulf states using the concept of the tribe to build internationally competitive national brands that combat the “flattening anonymity,” or cultural evisceration, of globalization. In other words, the tribal brand draws tourists, cultivates a marketable national image, and gives citizens a sense of collective identity.

“Tribal Modern” cogently builds its case. Cooke describes the racial caste system in today’s multicultural Gulf, emphasizing the obsession with bloodlines and tribal “purity” as determinants of citizenship. We learn how governments used the idea of the tribe to construct a sense of common race – key to the development of a modern state. “This racialization process,” she writes, “homogenizes heterogeneous populations,” making “what is not natural…appear as natural.” The idea of nation is then forged from this sense of common race. “Tribe becomes race becomes nation,” Cooke says. One important reason to create a cohesive sense of nation is to differentiate citizens, who are a minority, from the sea of foreign workers.

While citizens owe their first allegiance to the state, the tribal equals aristocracy, conferring both wealth and status. But tribalism is not merely a biological affair: it has assumed enormous symbolic value in the oil era. To stimulate both nationalism and international marketability, governments appropriate the tribal and allege a strong affinity between the tribe and state. This reliance has produced the tribal national brand.

The Gulf states develop the tribal brand by nationalizing Bedouin activities like falconry, camel racing, pearl diving, and poetry recital; constructing architecturally distinctive national museums and heritage sites; and equating traditional dress with privilege and ethnic superiority. Cooke shows how nostalgia for a romanticized Bedouin past has led to the inventing of traditions that “convert oil wealth into nationally legible cultural capital.” This crisis of meaning and hunger for identity seems very first world: a suddenly wealthy population yearns to reclaim its soul by incorporating traditions of yore. The rich past replenishes the empty present; the tribal gives depth to the modern.

Social scientists have the unenviable task of clarifying borders, overlap, and how dissimilar elements interrelate. Cooke figuratively uses the barzakh, a Qur’anic term denoting “undiluted convergence” and the “simultaneous mixing and separation in two dimensions: metaphysical and physical,” to explain the interaction between the tribal and modern. She writes that Qatar’s National Museum “will elaborate a distinctive identity permeated with the barzakh motif: it is neither Gulf nor Western, tribal nor modern, and yet both and, above all, something else.” Intellectually this makes sense: we live in a world of hybrids. But while the barzakh theme is creative and offers a visual, it does not necessarily sort out the complex relationship between the tribal and modern; it mostly reinforces the idea that the border between the two is a murky realm of coincidence and contradiction, which might be said of any frontier.

Nevertheless, “Tribal Modern” offers a refreshing perspective on the meaning of the tribal in the oil-rich Gulf. More generally, the book shows that the traditional can be updated to enhance the modern – that the traditional can even become modern. We set “Tribal Modern” down wondering if, instead of hindering progress, the traditions we bemoan –religious, cultural, or otherwise – have facilitated it.  

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 18, no. 67

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