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Bahrain: Tribal Nature of Gulf Society
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > Tribal Nature of Gulf Society


Gulf states have not granted citizenship freely for two reasons. First, they are reluctant to share wealth with recent arrivals; second, the tribal nature of gulf society does not admit new members easily. A tribe usually traces its lineage to a particular eponymous ancestor. The standard Arabic reference to tribe is bani fulan, or "the sons [bani] of so-and- so." The Bani al Murrah in Saudi Arabia, for example, trace their line back to a figure named Murrah, who lived some time before the Prophet.

Over a period of 1,500 years, the sons of Murrah, or any other ancient figure, have tended to become numerous, making further distinctions necessary. Accordingly, tribes are divided into clans and then into households (fukhud; sing., fakhd). Households include groups of single families. Together this extended group of families calls itself a tribe. Each tribe has certain characteristics, such as different speech, dress, and customs. But since the 1950s, speech has become less of a distinguishing factor because of the fluidity of gulf society.

The name of a tribe may also reflect some past event. For example, the name Utub -- the tribe to which the Al Sabah of Kuwait and the Al Khalifa of Bahrain belong -- comes from the Arabic word for wander (atab). In 1744 the tribe "wandered" out of the desert and into the gulf area and became the Utub.

Two of the most important tribal groups in Arabia are the Qahtan and the Adnan, whose roots stem from the belief that tribes in the north of the peninsula were descended from Adnan, one of Ismail's sons, and that tribes in the south were descended from Qahtan, one of Noah's sons. People in the gulf often attribute the structure of tribal alliances to this north-south distinction, and many still classify their tribes as Adnani or Qahtani.

Historically, the tribal nature of society has occasioned petty warfare in the gulf. Arab tribes have attacked each other since before Islam, but tribal customs have prevented these attacks from turning into random violence. Clans, however, have defected from their tribe and made alliances with other tribes, and tribes have sometimes banded together to form a more powerful group.

Moreover, although some tribes may trace their lineage to some heroic figure, the real identity of the tribe lies in the people that currently compose it. In the tribe, an individual bases his or her sense of self-esteem on the honor of the tribe as a whole.

In Arabia it was impossible to survive in the desert alone, and so families banded together to find water and move their flocks to new grazing lands. Once they established the necessary resources through collective effort, they guarded them jealously and refused to share them with outsiders. It therefore became necessary to set up boundaries between members of the group or between the tribe and outsiders. The tribe worked to restrict membership in order to preserve its sense of solidarity. As a result, birth into the right family tended to be the only way to become a member of a tribe. Marriage sometimes extended the tribal line beyond blood lines, but, in general, people tended to marry within the tribe and only went outside to establish alliances with other tribes.

The emphasis on the group precluded the rise of a strong leader. Accordingly, tribal leadership is often described as "the first among equals," suggesting a collective leadership in which one among a number of leaders is recognized as the most authoritative. This principal leader must continue to consult with his lesser colleagues and so rules by consensus.

An extension of this pattern of leadership is the concept of leading families within the tribe. Although tribalism tends to discourage inherited authority, traditions of leadership are nevertheless passed down, and tribes expect that certain families will furnish them with leaders generation after generation. This pattern occurred when tribes that were previously nomadic settled down in oases or coastal areas. It then became more likely that certain families would accumulate wealth, whether in food or in goods, and with this wealth would increase their authority. In this way, the individual families that in the 1990s controlled the gulf states established themselves around 1800. Relations with the British and the discovery of oil continued that process.

The existence of these ruling families is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of Arab tribalism in gulf society in 1993. Another manifestation is the collective manner in which these families rule. In most of these states, the position of amir is not passed from father to son but alternates among different parallel patrilineal lines. This makes the appointment of the next amir an open issue and something on which the entire family must agree. The family also participates in the various consultative bodies that exist to advise the leader. Such bodies, which include figures outside the ruling family, help to institutionalize the first among equals system in these states.

The way that government officials are appointed reflects the importance of tribal connections. Members of the ruling family are accommodated first, followed by families and tribes with whom the rulers have been traditionally allied. In Bahrain, for example, the ruling Al Khalifa have given the major positions in the bureaucracy to Sunni Arabs from tribes that helped them rule the island in the nineteenth century. The Al Khalifa have given lesser positions to Shia Arabs from merchant families with whom they engaged in the pearl industry but with whom they had no tribal alliances. But the Al Khalifa have been reluctant to give positions of authority to Shia farmers of Iranian descent to whom they had neither tribal nor economic ties.

Tribal cohesiveness is also reflected in the efforts of the gulf states to restrict citizenship. The gulf has always been relatively cosmopolitan, and its port cities have included Arab Shia from Iraq, freed slaves from Africa, Indian pearl traders, and Iranian farmers and merchants, in addition to tribal Sunni Arabs. (In 1939, for example, before the oil boom started, 39 percent of Qatar's population was non-Arab.) The dominant Arab tribes have accommodated many of these groups, and those who arrived in the region before 1930 became full citizens of the gulf states, albeit without the connections of tribal Arabs. The tremendous influx since 1940, however, has caused the naturally restrictive nature of tribal society to reassert itself to prevent a further dilution of tribal identities.

Ironically, those foreigners closest to the tribal Arabs, the nontribal Arabs, represent the greatest threat. Only Arabs from other Arab states might conceivably stay in the gulf and expect to be citizens. Others, even Muslims from the coasts of Pakistan and India, whose history is intertwined with that of the gulf, would have a difficult time arguing in the twentieth century that they should be citizens of an Arab state.

Modern Arab politics, however, often speaks of a single Arab nation in which all Arabs might be citizens. This has led to the notion that Arabs should have rights in the gulf states simply because of their ethnicity. The continuing exodus of millions of Palestinian Arabs since 1948, and their subsequent residence throughout the Arab world, has added urgency to the demand that individual Arab states define their qualifications for citizenship. Many Arabs argue that Palestinians in particular, but other Arabs as well, should be accepted as citizens in the gulf. Gulf leaders have understandably opposed this for fear that nontribal Arabs would challenge traditional ways of rule. Although people from all over the world may come to the gulf to work, sovereignty and citizenship are closely guarded by the predominantly tribal population that has its roots in the Arabian Peninsula. In this way, the Persian Gulf coast has preserved its ties with the Arab interior that form the essence of its identity.

The literature on Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman may be divided into two groups: books on Oman and books on the rest of the gulf states. Calvin Allen has a relatively brief study of the modern history of Oman entitled Oman: The Modernization of the Sultanate. John C. Wilkinson has written a number of scholarly studies on Oman, including his recent work, The Imamate Tradition of Oman. This is an excellent and detailed study of most aspects of Omani history.

For the rest of the gulf, a number of brief studies exist, of which the most recent is The Arab Gulf and the Arab World, a collection of articles on various aspects of modern gulf life edited by B.R. Pridham; it contains little on the history of the region. For more historical background, the reader may consult an older but more substantial collection edited by Alvin Cottrell entitled The Persian Gulf States. Further history can be found in Donald Hawley's The Trucial States.

Of books on particular countries or issues, the best is Fuad Khuri's Tribe and State in Bahrain, which considers the social, religious, and ethnic divisions of the island nation. A recent brief work on the UAE by Malcolm C. Peck, The United Arab Emirates, is very good. Abdulrasool al-Mossa's study, Immigrant Labor in Kuwait, provides a description of the situation of foreign workers in the gulf. Religious disturbances in the gulf are discussed in relevant chapters of Robin Wright's Sacred Rage. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography.)

Data as of January 1993

Last Updated: January 1993

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bahrain was first published in 1993. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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