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Saudi Arabia Tribe and Monarchy
Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
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    The rise of the centralized state has undercut tribal autonomy, and sedentarization has undermined the economic benefits of tribal organization, but in the 1990s the tribe remained a central focus of identity for those claiming a tribal affiliation. Contemporary tribal leadership continued to play a pivotal role in relations between individuals and the central government, particularly among those who were recently settled or still nomadic.

    The tribal leader, the shaykh (see Glossary), governs by consensus. Shaykhs acquire influence through their ability to mediate disputes and persuade their peers toward a given course of action. The qualities their position demands are a detailed grasp of tribal affairs, a reputation for giving good advice, and generosity. Shaykhs are essentially arbitrators; the process of resolving disputes reflects the tribe's egalitarian ethos. Shaykhs do not lead discussions but carefully ascertain everyone's opinion on a given question. Consensus is necessary before action is taken. To force a decision is to undermine one's influence; leaders are effective only as long as they conform to the tribe's expectations.

    Tribal leaders in the past brokered relationships among competing tribes and clans. Raiding was a mechanism of economic redistribution that conferred status on strong and successful raiding clans. Tribes or lineages could opt out of the round of raiding and counterraiding by seeking the protection of a stronger, more militarily oriented group. The protected paid their protector an agreed sum (khuwa), in return for which their lives and property were to be spared. The shaykh who accepted khuwa was obliged to safeguard those who paid it or compensate them for whatever damages they incurred. As with the booty of raiding, the shaykh who accepted the payment could only guarantee this influence by distributing it to his fellow tribesmen. These client-patron relationships based on payment of protection money were undermined by Abd al Aziz in the 1920s when he released weaker tribes from obligations to stronger ones and made himself the sole source of wealth redistributed from the spoils of raiding, and then later from oil profits.

    The working relationship between the monarchy and tribal leaders is viewed in much the same framework as the traditional relationship between the shaykh and tribal members. In fact, the same framework of the relationship between tribal shaykh and tribal members is the model for the ideal relationship between the monarchy and all Saudi citizens. Just as the tribal shaykh was expected to mediate disputes and assure the welfare of his group by receiving tribute and dispensing largesse, governors in the provinces and the king himself continue the custom of holding an open audience (majlis--see Glossary) at which any tribesman or other male citizen could gain a hearing. The largesse of the shaykh was dispensed not as direct handouts of food or clothing, as in the past, but through the institutions of the state bureaucracy in the form of free medical care, welfare payments, grants for housing, lucrative contracts, and government jobs.

    The tribes of Arabia acknowledged the political authority of the Saudi monarchy as being above the tribal group. Loyalty to the state was not a matter of nationality or still less an abstract notion of citizenship; it was a matter of loyalty to the Al Saud (see Glossary) and to the royal family as the focus of the Islamic nation. In a study of the Al Murrah, Nicholas Hopkins notes that "The Al Murrah make a distinction between al-Dawlah (the state or bureaucracy) and al-Hukumah (the Saudi royal family or governors); they are loyal to the latter and fearful of the former, but fear that the state is taking over the government." Most tribes were affiliated with the Al Saud through marriage ties as the product of Abd al Aziz's deliberate policy of cementing ties between himself and the tribal groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, the political alliance between tribe and state was reinforced by marrying tribal women to government officials and Saudi princes. According to a 1981 study carried out among the Al Saar beduin in southern Arabia, these marriages were encouraged by tribal leaders because they were seen as a means of ensuring continuing access to government leaders.

    Tribal solidarity has been institutionalized and tribal ties to both dawlah and hukumah have been cemented through the national guard. The amir of the Al Murrah tribal unit studied by Hopkins was the head of a national guard unit composed mainly of Al Murrah, and most Al Murrah families in the unit under study had at least one family member serving in the national guard. Through the national guard former nomads received training and the potential for high-level careers, as well as instruction in military sciences, and housing, health, and social services for dependents and families. The government also provided water taps and markets in cities, towns, and villages that were used in marketing livestock. Also provided were veterinary services, subsidized fodder, and buildings for storage.

    Data as of December 1992

    NOTE: The information regarding Saudi Arabia on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of Saudi Arabia Tribe and Monarchy information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about Saudi Arabia Tribe and Monarchy should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.

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Revised 10-Nov-04
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