KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — The Bedouins are coming! This is the latest catch phrase in Kuwait’s political circles and denotes the spectacular return of desert tribes to the center of national life.
In last month’s general election candidates backed by Bedouin tribes won 26 of the 50 seats in the national assembly and showed their force in several other constituencies. In fact more than 60 percent of all candidates had a tribal background. One tribe alone fielded candidates in eleven different constituencies.
The bedouinisation trend is reflected in lifestyle patterns. More and more people are decorating their luxury villas, built on Western designs, with furniture fit for traditional tents in the deserts. The chic de chic is to squat on the floor, smoke a hubble-bubble, and eat boiled rice and lamb stew with one’s hands. The desert, once identified as a symbol of backwardness, is regaining part of its mystique for a growing number of Kuwaitis.
“Many Kuwaitis feel a need to return to what they believe is the source of their identity: the desert,” says a French diplomat. “The competition between tribes and city-dwellers is becoming an important theme of Kuwaiti politics.”
That competition, encouraged in surreptitious ways by the government, has not yet developed into open conflict. But many city-dwellers are beginning to feel apprehensive about the impact of bedouinsation on national life, especially in social and cultural terms.
“The Bedouin discourse is largely conservative and anti-reform,” says Muhammad al-Rumaihi, one of Kuwait’s leading intellectuals. “It is also more introvert at a time that Kuwait needs to open itself further to the outside world.”
This latest Bedouin power grab is the continuation of a process that started after Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in August 1990. At the time many Kuwaiti city-dwellers were away on traditional summer holidays in Europe and the United States. Of those who had remained, many fled to Saudi Arabia to escape life under Saddam Hussein. The desert tribes, however, remained confident that their lifestyle, and their mobility would protect them against Iraqi tyranny.
The Bedouin blame the city-dwellers, known as hadharis, for most of Kuwait’s misfortunes since independence in 1960. They claim that the hadharis brought in such pernicious ideas as pan-Arabism, socialism, and, eventually, Islamic fundamentalism to Kuwait, thus plunging it into currents it could not control.
“The Bedouin want for parliament to be nothing but a council of tribes,” says a senior Kuwaiti official on condition of anonymity. “They fear change, and wish society to be frozen in time.”
Four decades ago Kuwait was a city-state and arguably the most open of Arab societies after Lebanon. It was the only Arab state with a constitution that mentioned democracy as its basis as provided for an elected parliament. It was also unique among the Arabs in having no political prisoners, no opposition in exile, and certainly no political executions.
It is unlikely that the retreat of the hadharis and the advance of the Bedouin will alter those basic features of Kuwaiti national life. But it could slowdown democratic development and social liberalization. It could also undermine the idea of “Kuwaititude” which developed as an expression of national identity after the Iraqi invasion. More importantly, perhaps, the bedouinisation trend could stop the emergence of the individual as the basic constituent element of society, replacing it with the “collective” unit of the tribe.
All of the Bedouin tribes in Kuwait are parts of larger tribal confederations that span a vast region from Oman to Syria and passing by Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. Some were brought to Kuwait from the Mussandam Peninsula by the government in the 1950s and 1960s as a demographic counterweight to city-dwellers that included large numbers of Shiites, often of Iranian extraction. The government also used the tribes as a political ally against pan-Arab and various leftist groups.
Some Bedouin see the growing influence of the tribes as a natural consequences of their greater political and social awareness prompted by their access to modern education provided by the state.
“If we couldn’t compete with the city-dwellers in the past it was because we lacked the political skills,” says one tribal candidate in the recent election. “There is no reason why anyone would fear our development into full citizens of the state.”
Critics, however, claim that the Bedouin have no particular attachment to Kuwait and are motivated by narrow self-interest. The Bedouin are also accused of political opportunism because of shifting alliances, first with the government, then with the Islamists, and now again with the ruling family.
The Islamists, having at first encouraged Bedouinisation as part of a broader strategy to prevent Kuwait’s Westernisation, now regard the tribes as a potentially dangerous enemy for themselves. After all, Islam, is the first great religion born in a city and opposed to the Jahiliyah (ignorance) of the desert in its time.
“What matters to these guys is their tribe,” says an Islamist intellectual. “They regard Islam as just a small part of their Bedouin lore and certainly would not want an Islamic system in which there are no tribes or even nations, only the broader Muslim Ummah.”
The state’s alliance with the tribes is also bound to b e unstable. To most tribes the authority of he state is an abstraction that can never supplant that of their own chiefs and elders.
The phenomenon of bedouinisation is not confined to Kuwait, but a growing trend in many Arab countries. City values such as openness, diversity, liberal social mores, and, above all, the importance of the individual appear to be experiencing at least a tactical retreat. The trend is encouraged by ruling elites that wish to counter the threat of Islamism but also fear democratization.
Arab history is full of instances in which the desert has swallowed great, prosperous and sophisticated cities. It is unlikely that that part of Arab history will repeat itself in actual physical terms. But the advance of desert traditionalism could extinguish a few lights in many Arab cities, at least for a while.
— Amir Taheri, an NRO contributor, is an Iranian journalist and author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam. Taheri is available through www.benadorassociates.com.