TRIBE, TRIBALISM AND CULTURAL CHANGE-KUWAIT 2008
By Kevin Anthony Stoda
On April 1, 2008 the AWARE Center in Surra, Kuwait hosted a "diwaniya" (i.e. a meeting) which focused on the evolving tribal system in Kuwait and its current impact on Kuwaiti society. The presenter that evening was anthropologist Dr. Mohammed Al-Haddad of Kuwait University, who has published extensively on the phenomena of tribalism for many decades. The presentation and subsequent discussion was considered fairly timely as tribalism significantly effects all Kuwaiti elections, and national elections for the country's National Assembly are to be held on the 17th of May. (The Emir of Kuwait had closed the parliament down and had called for new elections two weeks earlier.)
Within days of the parliament being closed down, tribes, tribal politicians and other local kingmakers were already holding illegal gatherings to determine who would run and who would win. In this way, these tribal political figures function as a cartel group in the five Kuwaiti governates, ensuring tribal-rather than civil-dominance of the popular election of officials in one of the two wealthiest countries on the planet.
This time around, though, the Kuwaiti government has been playing tougher than usual with the tribes and tribesmen and has actually arrested several tribal leaders who have openly broken Kuwaiti election laws. This led to tribesmen, who over several days had witnessed arrests of their members and leadership, to confront violently the government's criminal investigators on March 26, 2008-i.e. with the hopes of freeing the tribesmen. (There was another such violent confrontation yesterday evening.)
With all of this recent focus on tribes and tribalism, a very large Kuwait audience overfilled the diwaniya hall at the AWARE Center on April 1, 2008, in order to learn the basics on tribalism in Kuwait from a renowned expert in the field.
DEFINITIONS OF "TRIBE"
The anthropologist, Dr. Muhammed Al-Haddad, sees "tribalism" as a descriptive term to identify a certain kind of social group. In this social group kinship principles are dominant and thus rule behavior and much of the interpersonal interaction. In this case of "a tribe as a social group", blood brotherhood (or relationship by birth) is the key to the relationship among members of the tribal group.
In short, genealogical origin dominates the relationships. This genealogical relationship is the basic rationale for the identity of individuals in the group. Such as situation is common in other parts of the world, from Iraq to Sudan to Somalia or Nigeria and Kenya-where bitter fighting has taken place in recent years among tribes. However, in Kuwait such violence has not been the case in general.
Tribal identity is a transnational phenomena in the Arab Gulf region, which is to be expected as these tribal genealogical groups are founded on Bedouin movements and traditions dating back millennia. This is still the case, even though tribes, such as the Kuwaiti ruling family, i.e. the al-Sabah tribe, basically had settled in what is Kuwait over 240 years ago and haven't been generally observed as Bedouins since that time.
Likewise, mercantile classes include other tribes in Kuwait. This mercantile class of tribesmen have been since subsumed under the title of "urbans"-which other Kuwait tribesmen use to identify (with somewhat disdain) these more cosmopolitan Kuwaiti peoples. In short, every Kuwaiti citizen ostensibly belongs to one tribe or another, but the "urbans" prefer not to be associated in the minds of others as tribesmen.
KEY QUESTIONS ON KUWAITI TRIBES
In this introductory speech on tribes in Kuwait, Dr. Al-Haddad asked the following questions: (1) Has "tribalization" weakened in Kuwait in recent times? (2) What has the Kuwaiti government done to weaken tribalism? (3) What has tribalism done for Kuwait? (4) What has happened to tribalism in terms of integration into Kuwait?
Dr. Al-Haddad noted that there are other definitions of tribe than the anthropological one he prefers to use. Other concepts of tribe include the idea of equating "nomads with the word tribe". Other definitions claim that "tribes are Bedouin" or "Bedouins as equivalent to tribe".
However, Dr. Al-Haddad notes that in Kuwait these definitional entities are in no way equal to each other in the 21st century version of tribalism in Kuwait.