Tribal Logic in the Middle East

by ANDREW E. HARROD March 24, 2017

In most parts of the modern Middle East, tribal groups represent the cornerstone of society. Bar-Ilan University lecturer Mordechai Kedar's recent presentation by the Endowment for Middle East Truth offered great insight into the Middle East's historical political order underlying often-fragile modern states. His content also provided expertise critical for proper policy formation.

Kedar invited his listeners to reevaluate the Middle East and North Africa region, where states possess borders drawn by past European empires. He said that in many cases, "borders were marked either arbitrarily or according to the interests of the colonialists." He discussed European imperialists once ruling the Middle East and other parts of the globe, adding that they:

took a map and [would] make lines. Whether it was in London or Paris or wherever it was, they couldn't care less about the local peoples of these places. Maybe you combine together some groups which do not live in peace; maybe you cut a group in the middle. But they couldn't care less - let them kill each other, and the more the better.

The presentation noted the incongruous attachment of Sinai - a peninsula on the Asian landmass - to neighboring Egypt, an African country even though the Suez Canal (completed in 1869) now separates the two continents. While Sinai Bedouins speak an Arabic dialect related to Saudi Arabia's (but incomprehensible to the Arabic spoken by Egypt's peasant masses), past British desires for a buffer zone between the canal and the Ottoman Empire joined Sinai to Egypt. According to Kedar, as indicated by an Islamic State-affiliated Sinai insurgency, "Egypt until this very day is bleeding because of the struggle between Bedouins of Sinai and the Egyptian government - only because of the British interests of the 19th century."

Kedar noted that this past imperial pattern has led to modern conflicts throughout MENA and beyond. Drawing the new borders of Iraq following the Ottoman Empire's collapse after World War I, the British created a buffer zone around Iraqi oilfields near Mosul and Kirkuk by joining Kurdish areas with Iraq's Arab majority. The British and Russians had also colluded in drawing Afghanistan's borders, within which a patchwork of ethnicities now lives.

Likewise, "Iran is an artificial state made by Britain, and its fate is one day to fall apart," Kedar said, pointing out the ongoing insurgency in Iran's Baluchistan region, whose Muslim population is Sunni, unlike Iran's Shiite majority. Meanwhile, a Shiite population growing for decades in Lebanon has overtaken its previous Christian majority, upsetting a constitutional arrangement established by France in 1926 on the basis of sectarian groups. Thus, today, "Lebanon actually is another Shia state run by Iran, which supports Hezbollah under the mask of a democratic state.

"This is actually the real map of the Middle East," Kedar said, pointing to a slide showing a MENA geographic map without borders, a largely arid area in which vast deserts surround isolated water sources. "To live as a tribe is essential in this area. Otherwise you are weak; otherwise you cannot defend your source of water." This means that families in the region banded together as clans millennia ago. Clan members could marry only fellow clan kin, lest familial connections create competing tribal claims for resources while the tribes developed codes of conduct (e.g. rules of retaliation) that predated and had more tribal loyalty than Islamic and state law.

Kedar illustrated this phenomenon with his "real map of Iraq" that demarcated Iraq's tribes of various ethnicities clustered around waterways such as the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Similarly, Yemen's convoluted tribal map revealed tribes living around individual defensible mountains. Such fiercely independent tribes have their benefits: "Wherever a clan rules a place, they kick out the jihadists, because the jihadists want to undermine the pyramid of the clan," he said. "They want to establish a different kind of entity led by Islam."

Kedar criticized policies under which the "world continued to resuscitate this dead body politic named Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria and Libya and Yemen and all the others." In particular, "4,000 American soldiers were sacrificed on the Iraqi alter ... in order to resuscitate a dead body politic named Iraq," and Islamic sectarian differences only make more vicious Syria's current civil war. For the Assad family dictatorship and its fellow Alawite supporters - deemed idolaters by orthodox Islamic doctrine - "it's a struggle for the connection between their heads and shoulders. They know exactly what will happen to this connection if they fall into the hands of the Islamists [among the rebels]."

His prescription for this problem? "Let everyone have his own state and leave the others alone." Most East European states that emerged from the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia are now stable, with a major exception in Ukraine, where Russians and Ukrainians fight. Kedar said that he has "big doubts if there is a Palestinian nation," considering the historic Arab dialect differences between the Gaza Strip (de facto independent for a decade now) and the West Bank. Rather than a united Palestinian state, he advocated for an Israel-Palestinian peace settlement that forms Gaza and West Bank towns into independent "emirates."

Kedar contrasted the Gulf States with remarks that recall the late Egyptian diplomat Tahseen Bashir's quip that "Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags." These states are stable because they are modern incarnations of preexisting tribal orders where citizenship is often highly restricted to native populations with tribal ancestry. As a result, even hydrocarbon-poor Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is immensely wealthy, thanks to capitalist business acumen. Gulf State "leadership are the same families who were the leaders 200 years ago when they were riding camels in the desert. Today they are riding golden Lamborghinis."

In conclusion, Kedar said that "if you are homogenous, you will be rich; if you are heterogeneous, you will be victim of constant feuds."

A version of this piece also appeared on

Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a PhD from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from George Washington University Law School.  He is admitted to the Virginia State Bar.  He has published over 400 articles concerning various political and religious topics at the American Thinker, the Blaze, Breitbart, Capital Research Center, Daily Caller, FrontPage Magazine, Institute on Religion and Democracy, Independent Journal Review, Investigative Project on Terrorism, Jihad Watch, Mercatornet, Philos Project, Religious Freedom Coalition, Washington Times, and World, among others. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project, an organization combating the misuse of human rights law against Western societies.  He can be followed on twitter @AEHarrod.

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