The political climate in the Middle East has resulted in tensions that have turned into conundrums for academics and policy makers everywhere. So far, the international community has dealt with the diplomatic issues in the region by liaising with high-ranking state officials and high-profile opposition groups. Tribes are usually left on the sidelines of negotiations, in what is an underestimation of their influence in domestic politics. Consequently, agreements emerging from peace talks brokered by international bodies tend to ignore local tribes unless they are directly involved in the conflict in question and play a prominent enough role for their significance to be recognised.
Uzi Rabi, the Director of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is known for his extensive research on tribal affairs. He and the contributors to Tribes and States in a Changing Middle East offer a far-reaching analysis of the role of tribes and their relationship with the state in each country written about: Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Bahrain. There is also a chapter by Philip Salzman about an alternative approach to incorporating tribes in modern states.
The authors are experts in their fields and cover the unique relationship between each state and its respective tribes. They provide a brief history of the main tribes at the formation of each of the Arab states in the Weberian sense, demonstrating how each state either worked with or suppressed its tribes, depending on how much of an asset or a burden they were to the ruler. The Bani Sakhr tribe, for example, is known for its loyalty to the Jordanian monarchy and, during the Arab Spring, King Abdullah felt secure in knowing that he had a solid tribal base of support. The regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, on the other hand, did all it could to suppress tribalism in order to modernise the state, despite the fact that although his suppression of local and tribal governance prevented tribal structures from functioning freely, tribespeople retained their identity and many Yemenis continued to take their concerns to tribal leaders rather than state officials. This showed how tribalism played a major role in bringing the Saleh regime down.
The fresh outlook found in Tribes and States in a Changing Middle East is one that is not found very often in the English language. Not only does it show that the Middle East created by the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 changed tribal dynamics in many ways, but also explains the nature of tribes themselves. There is a misconception in the Western world that tribalism is an incoherent concept that relates tribes to castes and discrimination, while being the antithesis of governance rather than pragmatism and, in some cases, fulfilling social services such as welfare and justice in which the state may be lacking.
Overall, this is an excellent book suitable for people of all academic abilities. It highlights accurately the significance of tribes and the ways that different governments have dealt with them in a Weberian state in the past. Although it is not a directory of tribes in the Middle East, it is an excellent first reader for anyone seeking to know more about this important aspect of regional societies.