Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Employment and Unemployment among Bedouin

Academic journal article Nomadic Peoples

Employment and Unemployment among Bedouin

Article excerpt

The Bedouin of the Middle East contribute their share to their countries' national economy. As pastoralists they generally earn a higher income than as peasant cultivators. Why then do certain governments in the region seek to settle them and to decimate their herds, causing losses to the national economy and potentially reducing the Bedouin to unemployment, poverty and despair? The aim of this article is to understand this frustrating problem and to suggest practical steps for improving the situation. To do so we must first explain why governments often do not appreciate the Bedouin's economic contribution and do not recognize their rights to land. Then we shall explain how this causes high rates of unemployment among men and even higher ones among women.

Introduction

Bedouin are found throughout the Middle East. One of their major occupations is the raising of goats and sheep and, to a lesser extent, camels. Population estimates vary according to the definition of the term `Bedouin' and the available information, so figures may vary widely. Marx, nearly a generation ago, refers to seven million Bedouin (1971: 64), while Eickelman writes of `slightly more than one per cent of the population of the Middle East', i.e., some three million Bedouin (1989: 75). In the states of the Arabian Peninsula they are the majority of the population and certain Bedouin groups constitute the ruling classes. In other countries of the Middle East they constitute a small but significant sector, ranging from one per cent (Egypt) to four per cent (Palestine and Israel), and to twenty per cent (Jordan) of the population. Birth rates are uniformly high, so that with the improved health services available today populations may double every fifteen to twenty years.

The lives of Bedouin everywhere have undergone fundamental changes, due to the construction of new towns, roads, army installations, agricultural projects, mines and tourist facilities. Much of the economic development following in the wake of the Middle East peace agreements is taking place on land appropriated from the Bedouin. This is particularly the case in Israel and Egypt. The governments have sought to resettle people from crowded urban centres in the desert. In the course of these processes, the Bedouin have usually lost control over their traditional territories.

The Bedouin own and use large areas of land. But as they do not build up permanent infrastructures and are generally so widely dispersed that they cannot mobilise their potential power, they cannot control their land effectively, and are easily displaced. It is precisely because governments view the Bedouin as candidates for land expropriation and displacement, that they mistrust them and deny their economic contribution. Official `explanations' abound. Some common ones are that Bedouin are recent arrivals to the region who have no claims on land; that they move for months on end in desert regions that the states cannot easily control; that they engage in illegal activities, such as smuggling; that they raise animals only for subsistence and do not participate in the market economy; that they misuse land and turn fertile soils into desert. Basing themselves on such easily refutable arguments these governments see to it that Bedouin rights to land are not legally ascertained and assured. They treat the Bedouin as temporary sojourners on the land, and whenever any of it is required for military or economic projects, the official agencies usually simply seize it. Sites suitable for industrial and tourist development are always scarce, even in countries like Egypt and Jordan, which have vast tracts of desert. Choice locations are often sites with a good supply of water and fertile soil, precisely those places on which the local Bedouin economy hinges. Government agencies and developers often do not recognise the Bedouin's interests and rights to land. Instead of considering their legitimate needs, development projects either treat them as marginal or undermine their indigenous economy. …

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