Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Negotiating the Future of a Bedouin Polity in Mandatory Syria: Political Dynamics of the Sba'a-'Abada during the 1930s

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Negotiating the Future of a Bedouin Polity in Mandatory Syria: Political Dynamics of the Sba'a-'Abada during the 1930s

Article excerpt


This article examines a revolt among the Sba'a-'Abada Bedouin, a subgroup of the 'Anaza tribal confederation, in Mandatory Syria. The case offers a rare glimpse into the political dynamics of a Bedouin group under French Mandatory rule. The analysis shows that the political circumstances enabled lower ranking tribal representatives to enter into direct negotiations with other Bedouin leaders and state agencies. These negotiations demonstrate that tribal categories such as the "Anaza confederation provided a flexible reference system for the steppe population, which was used by tribal and state bodies alike. Keywords: Bedouin history, Syria, Iraq, Mandate period, tribe.


The Sba'a were one of the largest and most powerful camel-herding Bedouin tribes in the Syrian steppe in the early twentieth century (2) and numbered about ten to twelve thousand (Tribus nomades 1943: 77, 89). They drew additional strength from being part of the large 'Anaza confederation and this helped the Sba'a to forge political and military alliances with neighbouring "Anaza tribes, especially the Fad'an (Blunt 1968: 78; Meier and Bussow, 'Anaza'), and consequently enhanced their importance in the eyes of government officials. The Sba'a's unrivalled mobility in the steppe territory gave them a great measure of autonomy, which was, however, restricted by several factors: Their grazing lands were fragmented by the boundaries of four states established in succession after the demise of Ottoman rule in 1918: Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. (3) In addition, they began to surfer the consequences of broader economic and technological changes that made camel breeding less profitable than in the past. As among other Syrian Bedouin groups, these changes gave rise to social unrest, which threatened the authority of established leaders and representatives, or shaykhs. This context affected all Syrian Bedouin groups, but had particularly significant political consequences among the Sba'a, whose political structure was less robust than that of most neighbouring Bedouin tribes. One reason for this was that the Sba'a did not have a united leadership but were in practice a confederation of two autonomous sub-tribes, the Qumusa (also: Butaynat) and the 'Abada.

This was the background of the political upheaval in the 1930s that especially shattered the larger of the Sba'a's two sub-tribes, the 'Abada. The shaykh of the 'Abada, Barjas Ibn Hudayb, became the focus of contention, as he struggled to balance the demands made upon him by his fellow tribespeople and the French administration. In 1930, several leaders and representatives (mukhtars) (4) of tribal subunits within the 'Abada, which the French administrators called 'fractions' (fractions) and to which I will refer as 'clans' in what follows, (5) channelled the pervasive feelings of resentment against Shaykh Barjas into political action. Together with more than half of the 'Abada's members, they migrated to neighbouring Iraq and threatened to remain there. Their move to Iraq gained particular political salience because, during the years 1931-33, the British and French Mandate governments negotiated a final settlement of the Syrian-Iraqi border (e.g. FO 371/16082ff. in Records of Syria, vol. 5, pp. 141ff.; CADN/BEY/C.P./552, 24 Nov. 1930; Velud 1991: 6-8; idem 1995: 48). British officials explicitly called the negotiations a 'bargaining' process, and both administrations tried to win over nomadic groups to their side in order to bolster their claims to certain territories in the frontier zone (FO 371/15360, 11 Feb. 1931, ibid., vol. 5, p. 3).

The affair triggered a whole series of political negotiations that involved several other Bedouin leaders as well as decision makers within the French and British Mandate administrations. It came to an end in 1936, when the most powerful parties involved reached a compromise, bringing about Shaykh Barjas' downfall. …

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