GULF STATES-Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf

By Adra, Najwa | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2014 | Go to article overview

GULF STATES-Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf


Adra, Najwa, The Middle East Journal


GULF STATES Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, by miriam cooke. Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press, 2014. 224 pages. $65 cloth; $29.95 paper.

Reviewed by Najwa Adra

In Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, miriam cooke (as the author renders her name) explores the ways in which tribal genealogies, historic spaces and romanticized rituals have come to serve nationalist goals. She attempts to reconcile the apparent paradox of "modernist" (read Western) architecture and consumerism with an ongoing tribal discourse, assumed to be grounded in tradition.

To many this combination may appear problematic. It is often assumed in the literature that tribalism reeks of the "primitive," a useless, and sometimes embarrassing, survival. Although early anthropologists denounced the social evolutionary models upon which such assumptions are based,1 too many anthropologists2 and would-be anthropologists3 continue to associate tribes with underdevelopment. There is little awareness among those unfamiliar with the rural Middle East that tribal organization in the region often involves sophisticated forms of leadership, conflict mediation and the distribution of labor and resources - a sophistication that belies "primitive" labels.4 To her credit, cooke rejects such binaries in order to, "look below the surface of these newly rich desert societies to find the different meanings that attach to the appearance of the nonmodern, in this case the tribal. My argument throughout this book will be that the tribal is not the traditional and certainly not the primitive" (p. 7).

The Gulf states under discussion have not appropriated all defining aspects of tribalism. And, as has been the case throughout the region's history, tribal leaders' accountability to their constituents has been undermined by wealth, especially that of multinational corporations, and the power that accrues to the leadership of nation-states. Economic capital has now replaced historic "tribal" social and symbolic capital (p. 49). At the level of policy today, little attention is paid to Middle Eastern tribal ideals, such as "egalitarianism, consensus and a disdain for commerce."5 Modern Gulf leaders are not accountable or accessible to their constituents in the same way tribal shaykhs had to be historically; traditional attributes of leadership, such as "eloquence, courage, generosity and accessibility,"6 appear to have lost their value. Nor are Gulf citizens free to migrate elsewhere if they become dissatisfied with their rulers, as nomads could, and did, in the past (p. 51). So what remains of tribalism?

In the Gulf, tribal genealogies have been utilized to distinguish communities defined as indigenous, hence deserving full citizenship status, from those considered expatriate. Among these, certain genealogies are accorded higher social status than others, transforming "tribal status into social class, [and] splitting the formerly egalitarian tribal society of the desert shaykhdoms into at least five classes" (p. 60). Regarding this particular appropriation of tribal discourse, cooke concludes, "Though nation trumps tribe in the quest for international recognition, the idea of the tribe connotes aristocracy, and it remains absolutely salient for symbolic power and wealth distribution" (p. 65-66). Not surprisingly, the Gulf states' focus on tribal genealogy owes its roots less to "tradition" than to British influence, which helped fossilize previously fluid tribal identities: "By the end of the 19th century, the British insisted on a pure tribal lineage to qualify someone to negotiate [with them], and their insistence on designating and prioritizing some tribes over others became crucial ultimately, not only to defining citizenship but also to assigning economic and political rights" (p. 34). …

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