Hussain Abdul-Hussain

The mistaken tragedy of the Arabs

Unflagging tribalism is also to blame for the decline of Arabia

Two Kuwaitis men walk 26 March 1991 in Al Ahmadi oil field next to a burning oil well set ablaze by Iraqi troops (AFP Photo/Michel Gangne)

“A thousand years ago, the great cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo took turns to race ahead of the Western world,” wrote The Economist in an article that went viral in Arab circles. “Yet today the Arabs are in a wretched state,” it added. The piece then refutes the arguments that explain the Arab decline: Arabs were not the only ones affected by imperialism, and Islam is the majority creed in some prosperous non-Arab states.


What The Economist missed, however, is that Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo are only part of the story. During Ottoman times, cities in the Levant and Arabia were under direct Ottoman control and autonomous tribal territories were under nominal rule.


The most commonly accepted historical narrative argues that Great Britain merged three Turkish vilayets – Baghdad, Basra and Mosul – to create modern day Iraq. A quick reexamination of this narrative proves it flawed.


In 1917, Britain printed a brief guide to the history of Arab Ottoman territories. “Beyond the immediate vicinity of the towns, which are few in number, Mesopotamia is a tribal country,” it read. The making of Iraq, and the region, is much more complicated than the simplistic story of Sykes-Picot.


Dulaim, the western province the Baathists renamed Anbar in 1968 to undermine the influence of the Sunni Dulaim tribe, was autonomous, nominally pledging allegiance to the Ottoman sultan, an arrangement similar to that in Mount Lebanon and other tribal areas. In Iraq’s Kut Province, now Wasit, the Shiite tribe of Rabiah gave the British a pounding. It took British forces two years to conquer the area.


After the Ottomans, Iraq’s new rulers, the Hashemites, courted the tribes and gave them vast autonomy, which they enshrined in the constitution. Viceroy Abdul-Ilah, a Sunni, even married a Shiite woman from Rabiah in an effort to boost the monarchy’s position.


Gertrude Bell, the famous British diplomat credited with creating Iraq, had instructions to create a secure route connecting Basra’s oil fields in southern Iraq to Haifa’s port in northern Palestine, both under the British mandate. This required the integration of several tribal territories into Iraq, including Muntafiq, Diwaniyah, Karbala, Dulaim and the Northern Desert. The British created Transjordan and put it under another Hashemite to link Iraq and Palestine.


Bell and T.E. Lawrence were successful in winning over many tribes in the territories they needed to annex, but they could not possibly integrate all of them.


One of the expanding tribal powers at the time was the Najdi Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, whose Annazah tribe defeated its rival Shammar, whose land extended from northern Arabia to Kurdistan, through the Syrian Badia. In the tribal code of that time, when a tribe was defeated, it joined the victor and conceded its land. When Ibn Saud wanted to annex Shammar land, he clashed with the colonials.


Eventually, Ibn Saud relinquished the land, but kept the people. He made members of the tribes that had pledged allegiance to him Saudi nationals, who remain loyal to the Saudi monarchy to this day, even if they live in Syria or Iraq.


If you ever wondered what Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Assi and Iraqi interim President Ghazi al-Yawar (both of whom are pro-Saudi) have in common, consider that both men come from the Shammar al-Jarba (as opposed to the Shiite Shammar al-Toga). Also hailing from Shammar is the mother of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.


The overlap in maps between Ibn Saud and the colonials created two regions: one based on kinship and loyalty in the old tradition of Arab tribalism and the other based on Sykes-Picot and the interests of the colonials and their Arab urbanite protégés.


Like the Ottomans before them, the French and the British tried to urbanize Arab tribal regions by connecting them to cities and transforming their economies from subsistence to capitalism. These efforts backfired and the tribes revolted, especially the Druze in southern Syria.


Eventually, a connection was established and, instead of urbanization, the tribes flocked to the cities, first forming belts of poverty and then replacing the cosmopolitan leadership and lifestyle with tribal code and tradition, including endless bloody feuds. The oil boom and the colossal revenues that resulted gave the new tribal rulers immense power.


The Arabs are not in a wretched state – they are in a tribal state, and they are doing what they have been doing since time immemorial: conquering each other, demanding allegiance, and living in a state of perpetual war. The only difference now is that the Arabs are feuding in cities, and on TV and social media instead of in the desert.


The cities, once connected to the center of a prosperous and modern Ottoman Empire, have been changed irrevocably. The majority of Arab urbanites have left the Arab world, many in exile, and they are the ones who read The Economist’s article and shared it. They are the ones who lament past glory, real or imagined, and assign blame for losing it. Unless they, and the world, understand the nature, history and expansion of the tribal Arab world, they will fail to understand what went wrong.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain

War in the region seems interminable. (AFP Photo/Michel Gangne)

Bell and T.E. Lawrence were successful in winning over many tribes in the territories they needed to annex, but they could not possibly integrate all of them."

  • MoshMunken

    Before the descendants of the tribes from Arabia turned to driving out the present Arab intellectual and cultural elites, they were busy driving out--in sudden or slow squeezes--the administrative and cultural elites of the Jews, the Christians, and the other local populations which were holding the fabric of society together. The flourishing of the early days of the expansion of the Islamic empire had to do with the presence of large numbers of these older populations in the conquered areas. What was the makeup of Lebanon, just a century ago? Now these lands have been flushed out of their original and cultured inhabitants and of the administrative and commercial workers all that is left are the descendants of these Arab tribesmen, leaving us what today is rightly called "the Arab world." This is the inherent pattern of Arab and Islamic conquest--it is not something invented by ISIS. It is a giant pyramid scheme, wildly successful at first, but leaving nothing but desert and ruin for everyone after decades or centuries.

    July 20, 2014

  • Jacob the aggressive watcher

    Thank you for the history lesson. Very well received.

    July 16, 2014