Global Economy's Latest: Arab Nomads Staying Put Their Name Still Conjures a Life Traversing Hot Sands, but the Bedouin Today Even Hire Foreign Herdsmen

By Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 18, 1998 | Go to article overview

Global Economy's Latest: Arab Nomads Staying Put Their Name Still Conjures a Life Traversing Hot Sands, but the Bedouin Today Even Hire Foreign Herdsmen


Warren Richey, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Life as a Bedouin isn't what it used to be.

For thousands of years, desert nomads throughout Arabia endured searing heat and blasting sandstorms to lead their camels and sheep to sprigs of green in remote valleys.

Such men of the desert were revered as Arab icons, in part because their very existence from one day to the next was seen as a vivid demonstration that all life on earth - even in the midst of a parched wasteland - is a gift from God. But that romantic image of an Arab in the wilderness with his family, his herds, and his faith is fading away amid the economic realities of oil wealth. Today, would-be Bedouins in Kuwait sit in air-conditioned comfort and hire low-wage workers from Bangladesh to tend their herds. Such armchair Bedouins are a stark example of the globalization of the economy, an illustration that no matter how difficult, dirty, or dangerous the job, someone from someplace else can be found to do it. In the process, an important chapter in Arab history is ending. "It is true," laments Ayed Awad, a self-described Bedouin who also serves in the military. "But we can't live without these {foreign workers}. We have other work, and families, and homes," he says. Abdul Rahman Khalif isn't complaining. The Bangladeshi has been tending camels in Kuwait for two years. He is paid 30 Kuwaiti dinars ($93 dollars) a month, most of which he sends home. "In Bangladesh it is hard to make a living and eat. But when I come to Kuwait I can send money so my family can live," he says. As he speaks, the camels crowd around him as if listening to the exchange. They nuzzle Mr. Khalif, as if to comfort him. "They are all my friends," he explains. These particular camels are kept most of the time in a pen near the Al-Jahra camel market about 25 miles northwest of Kuwait City. Khalif sleeps in a corrugated tin shack beside the pen. He milks the camels twice a day. Not every Bangladeshi shepherd approves of his work conditions. In the middle of the desert more than 60 miles northwest of Kuwait City, Abdul Moni Hajer has spent the past three months watching a small herd of sheep. He earns $108 a month. He is bundled up against the approaching 40-degree night, with only his eyes exposed to the brisk wind. "In Bangladesh they told me Kuwait was good, but when I came I was shocked" by conditions, he says. While shepherds watch over both sheep and camels, camels clearly maintain a higher status among the Bedouin. At one time they were the best source of transportation across the desert.

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