Ri Insights

In the name of the tribe

By Geoffrey Martin

Rai Insights Contributor

Kuwait: Often when I read about tribal politics in Kuwait I see some assumptions and stereotypes that I really don’t like.  If you are a tribal member from Adwani, Ajmi, Awazem, Enaizi, Shimmari, Rashidi, Zufayri, or Otaibi you might be a robot, at the beck and call of your sheikh. You will put aside your own values and ethics, and even religion at times for the good of the tribe, the good of the state. This premise has been used over and over to explain the “problem” in countries (like Kuwait) with tribal cultures, to explain a lack of social or economic development, or issues of corruption.


First and foremost, these prejudices were used by the imperialist, colonial powers, especially our friends the British, to justify their assaults on a variety of territories around the globe. In the post-colonial era are these generalizations have remained in societies that have tribal polities, negating the truly contextual and fluid nature of politics and social life. The volatile anti-tribal rhetoric of former MP Mohammad Al Juweihel is a prime example of this prejudice being alive and well.


Tribal groups have always had a wide degree of social power in Kuwait, because Kuwait is a tribal culture. Almost all nationals in Kuwait, both urban and rural come from a Bedouin background. Historically, much of the narrative against the tribes relates to how they weakened merchant class or hadhari power (much like the Jenaat clans were accused before them). It is true that in the 1960s and 1970s an estimated 200,000 tribal people became Kuwaiti citizens. But like other groups in Kuwait, there has always been a strong historical alliance between the ruling family and the Bedouin tribes from the Najd. These tribes, whether citizens or not at the time, have come to Kuwait’s aid on frequent occasions, notably in 1920 in the al-Jahra incident. In 1990, it was largely these tribal Kuwaitis who fought and died in Jahra in a heroic attempt to stop the Iraqi advance, giving time for many other Kuwaitis to escape.


At the same time, anti-tribal rhetoric has always been especially prevalent in commentary of the parliamentary elections, where tribal politics figure greatly into the electoral process and the overall makeup of the National Assembly. Much of the crises of the last 20 years has been perceived as a fight between urban and rural forces as tribal peoples have gained a better standing. As Ebtahal Al-Ahmed, a professor at Kuwait University once stated “Tribes are no longer a social position. They are a political position.” The “tribes” from the 1980s onwards, came to occupy a significant number of seats (40% approximately since 2006) in the National Assembly.


Nowhere has anti-tribal rhetoric been more prevalent than the campaigns to reorganize the constituency boundaries. A key reason for the re-organization of electoral districts has been to “reduce their vulnerability to vote-buying and electoral manipulation” because of the ‘tribal primaries” (pre-election votes that decide the tribal candidate started by the Ajman in 1975). Because of the large and concentrated nature of tribes in some areas, for example the Awazem in Salmiya or the Rashidi in Farwaniya, they have tended to dominate elections there.

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Although primaries have been outlawed since 1998, they have continued repeatedly since. The major shortcoming of the law banning primaries is that it does not clearly state whether primaries are based on sectarianism or tribalism, making it difficult to criminalize. The success of tribal elections has actually induced other political forces to organise similar internal elections. The Democratic Forum did this in 2000 after MP Sami al-Munayyis passed away and Islamists have also organized internal elections.


Many of the political factions in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd Constituencies argue that tribes and their primaries prioritize a narrow tribal identity at the expense of the Kuwaiti nationality. I am not sure that this is a fair charge, seeing that all social groupings and classes in Kuwait, generally, vote based on familial association. Tribes have long competed in Kuwaiti elections and like other actions have behaved fundamentally different at different times, depending on their interests. First and foremost, they are Kuwaiti citizens, and they have not destroyed society or the state as many hadhari factions have warned that they would do. In a study by Kamal Salih on tribal primaries between 1975 and 2008 he argues that tribal factions are more than a one-dimensional bloc; they have an urban character, vouch for constituents, and prioritize political needs over tribal needs.


Primaries are by no means competition free events. Splits between different groups within the tribe, exacerbated by a stark division between the younger and older generation of men (especially in the Mutairi tribe in recent years) has led to intense competition. In the last parliamentary election in November 2016, smaller tribes, like Enizi and Shimmari took more seats, while larger tribes, such as the Ajman, Mutairi, and Awazem were reduced in number, largely due to disagreements in the primaries.


Often when I sit in diwaniya somewhere above the 2nd Ring Road I hear about the monolithic nature of the tribal coalition, or the religious zealotry of their members. But I would argue that the true reason for the rise of the tribes has simply been because these candidates are better organized and more in touch with the opinions of their communities. Many of the younger candidates rose up through the ranks of various social organizations, municipal governments, or cooperative societies and cut their teeth in grass-root politics long before heading to the ballot box. Most of the hadhari candidates come from the business community or from the elite establishment, which is a far cry from the populist skillset necessary to win votes these days. It is no surprise then that the movements that arose in 2011, such as Hadam (the Civil Democratic Movement) and Nahj (the Islamic coalition) or the “popular” (al-sha‘bi) were largely populated with youths from tribal backgrounds.


But a much more important factor is behind the changes and ‘rise’ of the tribes. It is materialist and relates to class issues, not identity. People in these outer areas want more hospitals, schools, housing, and infrastructure. They seek higher salaries, access to the private sector and other things that most urban Kuwaitis have. These are rational needs and wants, not driven solely by tribal concerns. In an earlier time-period many of the hadhari factions agitated for the same things. In the 1930s a society controlled by the merchants experienced the same difficult transitions when the modern state was built. Then, as now, this did not weaken society but merely reorganized it, and the redistribution of wealth that seemed so startling back then became the social and political groups that are legitimate and institutionalized.


Since the 1990s, the rising education levels and growing youth population has led to the inevitable integration of tribal peoples into urban life and it is their turn to become more urbanized and integrated in Kuwaiti society. This is an inevitable part of modernization, and because of a Kuwait’s democratic culture, which is both messy and confrontational, these issues will largely remain at the forefront of public opinion as they should.


Kuwait is at a crossroads in its future and no major group should be marginalized from this process.  Kuwait is driven by internal and external events to develop economically at the same times as it attempts to reconcile these coming changes with its deeply conservative traditions. Tribes, ie. 60% of the population of Kuwait “are playing an increasingly vocal and powerful role” in this future as they should.

*Geoffrey Martin is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Toronto in Canada. He studies Kuwaiti politics, focusing on the historical development of social and political power in the cooperative societies since the 1940s. Geoffrey is also a freelance write for Zenith Magazine in Germany and an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington, DC.

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