By Angus McDowall
RIYADH — The gentle clicking of Sheikh Abu Samir’s prayer beads as he lounged against a bolster in his camel-hair tent evoked the wilderness of Saudi Arabia’s desert, not a dusty camel market beside a Riyadh motorway.
The Kingdom’s Bedouin might have forsaken a desert lifestyle that brought more hardship than riches, but their tribal identity retains a lingering influence in modern Saudi life and one that some Saudis believe may be enjoying a revival.
“(Tribal feeling) is growing,” said Saad Al-Sowayan, a Saudi anthropologist who specializes in Bedouin oral history.
While experts debate whether that is true and why, the authorities, whose success in building a modern state was in part dependent on settling the Bedouin and ending centuries of infighting, have shown themselves concerned enough to take steps to curb any resurgence of tribalism.
The government two years ago closed a television station after it broadcast poems glorifying tribal rivalry, according to local media.
“The tribes are still strong,” said Abu Samir, a chief in the Otaiba tribe, as he drank tiny thimbles of Arabic coffee with companions in a tent among the pungent animal pens of the camel market. “But the olden days were better.”
“You cannot expect tribalism to disappear over one, two or three decades. It takes longer than that,” said Khalid Al-Dakhil, a political scientist in Riyadh.
Tribal influence registers in subtle ways, and is often most obviously manifested when tribal members have a problem with the authorities.
Because their positions depend on their level of popular support, tribal chiefs will often work as hard as possible to mediate on behalf of their tribesmen.
“His power comes from showing he has lots of constituents, so he will help people to get into hospital or get a business deal because it will help boost his position with the government,” Sowayan said.
Tribal leaders have boasted of their ability to secure more lenient sentences for fellow tribesmen who fall foul of the law, while members of bigger clans have a better chance of escaping the death penalty because there are greater resources to fund blood money payments to victims’ families.
Tribalism also has an important bearing on social relations, even extending to who can wed whom.
Many Saudis were outraged in 2007 when a judge annulled an apparently happy marriage after two years because the wife’s brother did not want to be associated with her husband’s lowly tribe. Such influence comes at a cost, however.
“What is clear at this point is that the role and influence of the tribal leadership has declined significantly. They can maybe help some relatives to get a job, they can maybe use their connections to minimize legal sentences against one of their relatives, but they will have to pay for it,” said Dakhil.
Although Saudi Arabia now celebrates its Bedouin roots with televised camel beauty contests and sword dancing, only a handful of semi-nomads remain in the country’s northern deserts where they scratch a living ranching sheep.
“Nomadism as an economic structure is gone... People came to the city for government services and bank loans. The desert is overgrazed and the game is overhunted... Now you can hardly find gazelle,” said Sowayan.
As the tribes settled, their military strength evaporated and with it the political might that they once wielded across the Arabian Peninsula.
However, as Sowayan points out, the tribes can still provide a bridge between some ordinary Saudis and the authorities. — Reuters