Tribe and Tribalism in Arabia: Notes from the MESA Conference

Hi all,

Dr. Ali and Andrew at the Association for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies (AGAPS) social.

It was a busy November for me. In addition to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, I also attended the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) meeting in Washington DC. Dr. Ali Al-Shawi (Qatar University) and I have been collaborating on a paper that examines the role that tribes and tribalism play in contemporary Qatar, and we presented the first draft of our findings at the meeting. For me, this paper is a particularly interesting collaboration — Dr. Ali is not only a good friend, but he’s also a member of the Al Murrah tribe. The Al Murrah tribe’s homeland centers upon the France-sized piece of Saudi Arabian desert called the “empty quarter,” and for millennia his ancestors survived and even prospered in that inhospitable environment.

Tribes and tribalism are often portrayed as a pre-modern, “traditional” form of belonging that’s at odds with the modern state, and predictions commonly suggested that tribes would wither as the Gulf States modernized. That’s certainly not the case in Qatar. Our research points to the resurgence of tribalism, and the political role that tribes play in the contemporary social landscape of Qatar. We also focus on the performative element of tribal belonging, and argue that, nowadays, even families from urban and merchant backgrounds are framing themselves as modern tribes. This performance reaches its crescendo on Qatar’s “National Day”: tribes and other large extended families set up celebratory tents all over Qatar to represent themselves on the urban and national stage.

I was also invited by Dr. Ala Al-Hamarneh (University of Mainz) to participate in a thematic discussion exploring neoliberal urbanization in the Middle East. It was a fantastic panel — we had a great conversation that charted many of the unanswered questions about the astonishing urbanization we’re witnessing in the contemporary Gulf States.

Andrew

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