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

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 modernization.

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 origins.

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 behavior.

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.

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