It is so easy to view the Arab Gulf states as uniquely soulless, artificial, despotic and ultimately illegitimate entities. Many assume, in stop-motion photography-style, that once the oil has stopped flowing the sky-scraping cities that have erupted out of the sand will just as quickly disintegrate back into the desert landscape. The imperious ruling elite will likewise tumble back into the nomadic camel-herding existence of their ancestors. Not quite, according to Miriam Cooke, Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and author of such feminist works as Women Claim Islam (2000) and Opening the Gates (2004). One could not ask for a more informed and sympathetic observer of the Arab world.

In Tribal Modern, she provides us with a novel insight into the rapid emergence and development of the Arab Gulf nation states. Cooke seeks to uncover the forces at work behind the seeming contradiction of the ‘Tribal’ and the ‘Modern’ in the Gulf. She reveals the societal superstructure scaffolding an economic system based on the vast wealth extracted from oil reserves, which have been used for ‘nation building on tribal territories’. It is a process that has ‘turned tribe into race into nation’.

Miriam Cooke, Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf, University of California Press, Oakland, 2014

Cooke’s central argument is that it is a mistake in the context of the Gulf States to regard the tribal as an archaic or vestigial formation overtaken by modernity and technological advance. In fact, the tribe is making a vigorous comeback in the twenty-first century: ‘the tribal signals racial privilege, social status, and exclusive entitlement to a share in national profits’. When the tribal comes face to face with modernity, there is no clash of conflicting values, no moral antagonism. Rather, it is a meeting of the minds: ‘the desired effect of common aspirations’. Moreover, the tribal is not subsumed into modernity – it exists as a discreet and active component within the present-day Gulf capitalist set-up. Cooke asserts that ‘the tribal is integral to the modern; it constitutes a crucial element in the Gulf’s modernity’.

How can one explain this dynamic? Cooke uses an unexpected and somewhat paradoxical device – the Qur’anic concept of barzakh, the metaphysical space between life and the hereafter, as well as the physical space between salty and sweet, fresh water. She points out that the island of Bahrain is Arabic for two seas, a reference to the natural phenomenon by which fossil aquifers under the seabed push out a permanent and separate layer of fresh water that lies underneath the Gulf seawater. For Cooke barzakh provides the holding metaphor for the recent development of the region: ‘the Tribal and the Modern in today’s Gulf states cannot be disentangled. In the fifty-year barzakh linking and separating the oil sheikdoms and today’s nation-states, each is shaping the other in a dynamic, cultural-political field in which apparently contradictory states remain in balance, the tribal does not compromise with the modern, nor does the modern erase the tribal’.

Cooke also explains, referencing the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn’s concept of ‘the invention of tradition’, how the Arab elite has sought to legitimise its rule by inventing ‘pure’ tribal bloodlines cleansed of all past foreign influences. The Gulf’s ruling families are not unique in their endeavours to manufacture a historical ‘authenticity’ – Hobsbawn’s concept was originally applied to British phenomena such as the airbrushing away of the British monarchy’s Germanic roots and its re-invention as the entirely fictitious ‘Windsor’ family, as well as invented totems of Scottish nationalism such as the clan tartan.

So how do the denizens of the Gulf States themselves perceive tribal modern? Cooke asks her students. ‘Of course! Tribal roots is everyone’s new thing!’ is the standard reply. The students explain how upon meeting one another for the first time they would immediately ask each other’s tribal connection (a line of questioning seen as extremely rude in other tribal cultures such as Somali). For the students ‘the tribe had to be elite, with an impressive lineage, for it to be really cool’. Thus, the ‘tribe’ is transformed from a social organisation by which nomadic peoples could negotiate territorial rights, access to resources and resolve disputes, into a racialised category conferring exclusive claim to superiority and access to political and economic power.

But like all founding myths the truth it obscures is much more interesting. The Arabian Gulf has historically been a crossroads connected via trade-routes to the Indian subcontinent, the East African coastal civilisations and East Asia. In this sense the migrant workers who labour in Dubai and other cities are only the latest in a line of wealth-creators stretching back millennium. It is ironic that cities like Dubai are today pouring vast resources into manufacturing a heritage based on a rather sparse and romanticised vision of desert culture revolving around falcons and camels, when its actual history reveals what many would regard as a rich and fascinating multicultural and multi-ethnic cosmopolitan past. But to admit this ancestry would be to undermine the invention of an authentic Arab past of racially pure tribes. As Cooke observes, it is taboo to discuss the Persian, African and Indian heritage comingled with the elite Arab bloodlines – thereby dissolving the past into sterile ‘myths of millennial isolation’.

The next step is to fit tribe and race into the nation state. Those tribes who refused to give up a nomadic lifestyle that traditionally ranged across national boundaries have been effectively rendered stateless and without the benefits of citizenship. They have become known as the Bedoon – ‘without’. Cooke quotes a Bedoon activist who complains that they ‘cannot legally obtain birth, death, marriage or divorce certificates. The same applies to driving licences, identification cards and passports. They do not have access to public education, health care, housing or employment…Simply stated, the Bedoon, who are equal to about ten per cent of the Kuwaiti population, do not exist’.

For the tribal modern to work effectively it has to be policed rigorously, Cooke asserts. Laws regulate which marriages are permitted. Qatari Law No 21 bans categories of state employees, including ministers, diplomats, the military officer class and the police, from marrying foreigners. Spouses have to meet various qualifications based on a matrix of hierarchies on tribal, ethnic, and national lines. Couples who defy the rules can be forced to divorce. Proof of suitability inevitably boils down to biological and racial constructions, casting a very dark light on the essence of Gulf marriage laws, with historical echoes of eugenics and Nazi policies of racial purity. One upshot of course is a proliferation of first cousin marriages (30 per cent of all marriages in Qatar) and the accompanying danger of inherited genetic diseases.

Cooke spends time to describe and deconstruct the Gulf heritage ‘brand’. This heritage is manufactured through banal, grand scale, projects such as Norman Foster’s plan for the (zero carbon) Abu Dhabi Museum, which will feature ‘five high-tech soaring pavilions, representing the feathers of a falcon’s wing’, or Jean Nouvel’s design for the Qatar National Museum ‘inspired’ by a desert rose growing out of desert landscape. This ‘barzakh dynamic’ represents a unique hypermodernity, argues Cooke. It is transforming the Gulf States from regional powers to global players: ‘before oil their countries were unliveable, but today they have the wealth and power to assure luxurious lifestyles, continued independence, and growing international presence’.

I am not quite sure that a racialised identity, based on pure blood and social eugenics, can ensure anyone’s independence. Anthropologists tend to have a slightly romantic notion of tribes. We ought to be aware that many of the contemporary problems of the Muslim world are a product of tribal allegiances. Think of Afghanistan and its warring tribes. Or how tribal factions have destroyed and shed so much blood in Iraq. Or the conflict in Syria which is essentially an all-out war of tribes. Nor am I convinced that the inhabitants of the Gulf State are all that ‘modern’; after all, if modernity has any meaning, it is not limited to grand structures and wonders of imported technology. Modernity is essentially a conceptual category which requires acceptance of certain norms and values – such as embracing diversity, human rights, and shunning the Nazi era ideology of blood superiority. If ibn Khaldun was around, he would describe tribal modern as simply asabiyyah – generating bonds of cohesion but nevertheless obnoxious clannish behaviour that thwarts the emergence of civilisation. Moreover, I am not convinced that the barzakh metaphor is necessary or if it actually works.

The rapid emergence of the Arab Gulf states can be viewed, and explained, as a very particular configuration of twenty-first century, globalised, hyper-capitalism. The tribal modern lens is certainly a rewarding method by which one can discern the source of the region’s dynamism. However, one is left wondering how unique an example it is on a historical level. As Hobsbawn pointed out, states have often found it necessary to mask or dampen their internal contradictions by constructing mythical pasts that attempt to unify a population behind the national project. The huge wealth generated by oil revenues has made it possible for the Arab elites to rapidly erect such an artifice – reconfiguring tribe into race into nation with relative ease.

It is worth considering that there are frameworks other than barzakh that one can bring to bear to describe the way by which seemingly contradictory elements of the old and new can sit together. Over one hundred years ago Russian Marxists sought to explain how seemingly backward countries and economies could leap-frog stages in capitalist development in a short space of time. The theory of ‘uneven and combined development’ was originally devised to explain how early twentieth century Russia could simultaneously exist in a state of feudal Czarist absolutism and at the same time undergo rapid industrialisation in its cities. Leon Trotsky put it this way: ‘although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness — and such a privilege exists — permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages. Savages throw away their bows and arrows for rifles all at once, without travelling the road which lay between those two weapons in the past. The European colonists in America did not begin history all over again from the beginning. The fact that Germany and the United States have now economically outstripped England was made possible by the very backwardness of their capitalist development’. In Russia, uneven and combined development led to the co-existence of an archaic culture of primitive peasant production and a semi-feudal state combined with the culture of modern industrial society. This meant that cultural practices, institutions, traditions and ways of life belonging to both the very old and the very new were all combined, juxtaposed and linked together in a unique way. As we know from subsequent Russian history, this process did not mean the inherent tensions in that society were resolved, indeed they were exacerbated and magnified.

So we might say that although the tribal modern has given the Arab Gulf states an advantageous platform from which to launch itself on a global stage, it is also simultaneously importing the contradictions and fault-lines present in twentieth-century hyper-capitalism into its midst. The tribal may have been modernised but it is still a clannish mentality. Purity, religious or tribal, is always toxic.

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