I’ve just returned from a trip to the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I was invited to present to a workshop entitled Tribe and State in the Middle East, hosted by the LSE’s Middle East Centre. It was a fascinating conference, substantively interdisciplinary, and bursting with contributions and assessments from around the Middle East and North Africa.
The central question guiding this small congregation of scholars concerned how tribe and tribalism — undeniably a social feature integral to the traditions of many peoples around the Middle East — fits with the modern state. Are tribes and states antithetical in nature? Or can (and do) they fit together in new, unforeseen ways?
Papers helped illuminate this issue. Haian Dukhan‘s fascinating paper, for example, explored how tribalism features in the social frictions and conflict that have embroiled Syria. Alice Wilson‘s paper examined how tribal forms of meeting have been a feature of the nascent democracy in Western Sahara, and the basis for political mobilization in some parts of Oman. Alnoud Alsharekh clarified that tribalism was, and remains, a stoutly patriarchal form, and one that remains an oppressive force in women’s lives around Arabia. Numerous other papers in the session explored equally interesting topics.
In my own paper (which I retitled On Tribalism in Arabia), I provided an overview of anthropology’s long concern with the tribal form of social organization. While anthropology’s perspective on tribalism has evolved fairly dramatically over the last century, it remains a meaningful social form to many anthropologists, foremost, I think, because it remains a meaningful social form to the peoples we study. I further suggested that while researchers have pointed to the resurgence of tribalism in places where the state is weak or absent (such as post-war Iraq), the resurgence of tribalism in Qatar and the other Arabian Gulf States — places where the state is neither weak nor absent — suggests other conditions and circumstances also foster the value of this tribal form.
The Middle East Centre at the LSE intends to publish these papers on its blog, and I’ll post a brief follow up here with those links once they’re available.