Forward, NY
Jan 3 2008

The Tribal Dynamics of Old Play Out Again in the Middle East

By Yossi Alpher
Wed. Jan 02, 2008

The system of Middle East states as we know it today was largely
imposed upon the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire by England and
France, the victorious European powers of World War I. Judging by the
current state of affairs, they did not do a very good job.

Five out of the Arab League's 22 members - Iraq, Sudan, Somalia,
Lebanon and the Palestinians - are in a state of collapse or acute
fragmentation. The region exports varieties of Islamist extremism and
terrorism around the world. And by and large its natural wealth is
not applied to the urgent task of coherent state-building and

The broadly sectarian nature of Middle East life was apparently
better accommodated by the Ottoman Empire, which made elaborate
allowances for tribal and religious autonomy. No wonder Israelis and
Arabs sometimes greet Turkish officials with a wistful and only
slightly tongue-in-cheek, `we miss Ottoman rule.'

Nor should it surprise us that, in economic terms, the most
successful countries in the Middle East today are the Gulf emirates,
which are essentially tribal city-states. Dubai and Qatar may be
undemocratic and have huge expatriate populations of laborers, but
they are also prosperous, peaceful and thoroughly globalized. The
traveler to the Arab side of the Gulf - from Kuwait in the north via
Bahrain and Qatar to the seven United Arab Emirate statelets - cannot
but be struck by the individual personality of each state, emerging
as it did from a separate and unique Arab tribal system.

In contrast, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon and the Palestinians are
falling apart along tribal, clan or sectarian lines. Sunnis, Shi'ites
and Christians are separating from one another, as are devout
Islamists from secularized Muslims. Where Israel once confronted
Palestinian and Lebanese neighbors, it now borders on Hamas and Fatah
in separate parts of the Palestinian territories and a
semi-autonomous Shi'ite entity in southern Lebanon that is allied
with non-Arab Iran.

On Israel's border to the east there is Jordan, which originated in
an alliance between an exile Hejazi tribe, the Hashemites, and local
Bedouin tribes and ethnic minorities. And to the northeast there is
Syria, which is ruled by an Alawite minority that behaves very much
like a tribe, or even a mafia, despite its pretense of championing
`Greater Syria.'

Of all Israel's neighbors, only Egypt has the characteristics of a
coherent nation-state. Its dominance over the Arab world throughout
most of the modern era can be explained precisely by the fact that
Egypt, with its 7,000-year history, long ago outgrew any tribal

Like the black African countries whose progress is stymied by
European-imposed, conflicting tribal lines, problematic Arab states
like Iraq, Lebanon and Sudan may not disappear tomorrow. But the
dynamic of their behavior is in many ways best understood with
reference to pre-European times, when their separate ethnic
components either did not exist

as political entities, as in the case of South Sudan, or were
recognized as distinct and autonomous regions, as in the case of the
Maronites of Mount Lebanon, who maintained their integrity precisely
through ancient ties to Europe. Not surprisingly, the only
significant American success thus far in occupied Iraq emerged when
American forces began dealing with the rebellious Sunnis of Anbar
province as individual tribes with specific interests.

This reality explains the interest generated recently by the
unearthing of a proposal for partitioning the Middle East along
ethnic-tribal lines drawn up in 1918 by T. E. Lawrence.

Like his superiors back in London, Lawrence of Arabia apparently
couldn't properly sort out British colonial interests, as opposed to
those of local Arabs. Nor did he realize in drawing his map in 1918
that there were few, if any, Armenians left alive in the state he
assigned them on the northeast corner of the Mediterranean. Still,
his map makes more sense in terms of Arab sectarian concerns of the
day than the state system the British and French soon produced.

Vanity Fair magazine just commissioned Dennis Ross and three other
veteran Middle East experts to carry out a similar exercise. It
produced 17 ethnic divisions, including several huge, diverse tribal
areas that dominate the region geographically; a united Kurdistan
that spans parts of four countries; and a northern Gulf crescent
embodying the region's Arab Shi'ites, who are also currently split
among four countries, including Iran.

Here and there, some aspects of Israel's mindset and behavior can at
times also best be understood as `tribal' in its clashes with and
attitudes toward its neighbors. The tit-for-tat, eye-for-an-eye
concept of deterrence and the settlers' creeping land grab in the
West Bank all seem to reflect tribal behavior more than rational
analyses of sophisticated national interests.

At the same time, it is precisely the reluctance of some Arabs and
Iranians to deal with Israel as an ancient tribe with roots in the
region that has emerged as a modern state - insisting instead that it
is a foreign import representing a foreign religion - that explains
an important dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Finally, tribalism is an important backdrop to the current dominance
over the Middle East region by Turkey, Iran and Israel. All three are
ancient peoples who, compared to most of their Arab neighbors and
following very diverse historic paths, long ago outgrew tribal

True, it is almost certainly too late to repartition the Arab Middle
East along tribal lines; nor would most of the region's ethnic groups
have it so. Yet a look at the increasingly tribal nature of Middle
East life remains very useful for understanding how alive the ethnic
dynamics of old still are.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak
and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is
co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications. 79/