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Tribal society

bedouin family Qatar tribal society
Bedouin family in the Qatar desert / Photo HH

For centuries Bedouins (badu) have passed through the Qatar Peninsula – a strip of land extending northwards from the Arabian mainland to the Persian Gulf – benefitting from the sparse resources and at the same time maintaining their territorial interests with regard to other families in present-day Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

Records indicate that Qatar, in 628, was ruled by someone belonging to the Al Musallam, a tribe that was part of the larger Al Tamimi, one of the main tribes of Arabia whose history goes back to pre-Islamic times. Ottoman sources also confirm that the Al Musallam were in the Peninsula for the longest stretch of time and were still in charge in 1555. The tribe was based at al-Huwayla. Until the arrival of the Utub tribe in 1783, three small settlements existed in the Peninsula: al-Huwayla, al-Fuwayrat and Doha. At the beginning of the 18th century, the Al Musallam was outnumbered, and the Peninsula was inhabited by other tribes. The dispersed origins of these tribes, and their annual migratory patterns, demonstrate the degree of difficulty that was inherent in attempting to maintain control of the Peninsula. In the absence of a central authority, the coastal towns and villages were governed by local sheikhs.

In the 18th century, the coastal conditions were more favourable than in central Arabia, where the economy did not prosper and agriculture was limited. These factors shaped a new relationship between the coast and the hinterland, as the shoreline presented rich oyster beds for harvesting pearls. The tribes from the interior increasingly began to move and settle in the coastal centres as the pearling industry became particularly lucrative. The tribal migrations that occurred around 1800 brought the tribes and clans that nowadays control Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Qatar’s society today is founded upon traditional tribal systems which have their origins in the region around the Peninsula. The hierarchical nature of society was based on the mainland tribes, although in the coastal areas, identity hinged more on commerce. Among the principal badu tribes who continuously migrated to and from the Qatar Peninsula after the Al Musallam were the Al Murra and Al Ajman from Hasa; the Al Manasir from Oman; and the Al Nuaim, roaming between Bahrain and Oman. The majority of the non-sedentary tribes who grazed their stock in Qatar was merely transient. They owed allegiance to the Saudis, whom they paid jizya (tribute). Individual clans of the great Bedouin tribes such as the Al Murra, Bani Hajir and the Al Manasir made up a large segment of Qatar’s ethnic, migratory population. They succeeded in acquiring the Qatari nationality when Qatar gained independence. Some of them even managed to secure a double nationality, enabling them to continue their seasonal migration between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

One of the tribes that moved within a relatively small radius of the Peninsula was the Al Nuaim. The Al Nuaim, one of the Bedouin tribes who early on settled in the Qatar peninsula, numbering about 2,000 in 1908, was by far the largest semi-sedentary tribe. From about 1860 their dira (grazing area) was located in the hinterland of al-Zubara. Partly sedentary, but overall pastoral, in the summer a large group of Al Nuaim would migrate by boat – with their camels, horses and sheep – to Bahrain. Others took up summer quarters near Doha.

Since 1800 most of the tribes of Qatar were however sedentary, and are more often than not of mixed ethnicity. The largest of the sedentary tribes that populated the coastal districts were the Al Sultan, Al Mahanda, Al Sudan, Hamaydat, Huwala, Al Bu-Aynayn, and the Al Bin-Ali. The majority of tribes in Qatar settled as town dwellers or hadar (people leading sedentary lives) in the 18th century. They generated income mainly from pearl diving, fishing, trade and sea transport. Their economy was therefore oriented more towards the sea than to the desert. In addition, they owned camels, sheep, and goats, which were herded by Bedouins of the interior in the winter months. Some of the hadar tribes also took to the desert themselves during the colder season. Their main objective was the grazing of their stock, but they may also have had a political motive. For example, Al Thani sheikhs used their desert camps to assert influence over the Bedouin tribes of Qatar.

In the late 1950s there were only about a thousand Bedouins still living in tents in the whole of Qatar. In 1960, the government started a settlement program, urging the remaining pastoral Al Nuaim to exchange their tents for the concrete houses of the newly built town of Al-Ghuwayriya.

Estimates in 2005 put the figure of the Al Murra between 5,000 and 10,000, suggesting that they accounted for anywhere between 2.5 to 5 percent of the Qatari population in that year. In 2004, a decree from the Emir stripped all members of the Al Murra of their Qatari nationality, expelling them to Saudi Arabia as they possessed dual Qatari and Saudi citizenship.

The ruling tribe

In the early 1800s, the main settlements in Qatar were associated with two tribes, the Al Thani and the Al Khalifa. The Al Khalifa had first established a settlement across the coastline of the Peninsula. Although the Al Khalifa tribe was successful in taking Bahrain, it did not succeed in holding Qatar. The Khalifa tribe lost the Peninsula to the Al Thani, the leading tribe who belong to the Al Tamimi, which migrated eastward from central Arabia to the Qatar Peninsula and emerged as a dominant ruling family in the mid-19th century. The Al Thani tribe is composed of many fractions; three major branches can be defined: the Bani Hamad led by Khalifa bin Hamad; the Bani Ali led by Ahmad bin Ali; and the Bani Khalid led by Nasir bin Khalid. The Al Thani members are estimated at 1/5 of the Qatari population.

The second sheikh, Qasim ibn Muḥammad Al Thani (1878–1913), is considered to be Qatar’s founder. The seventh sheikh, Khalifah bin Ḥamad Al Thani (born 1932), was instrumental in obtaining Qatar’s independence from Britain in 1971 and became the first emir of the country. On 27 June 1995 he was deposed by his son Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (born 1952), who abdicated on 25 June 2013 in favour of his son Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (born 1980).

Merchant families

Before the discovery of oil and petroleum development in Qatar, trade between the members of the tribes and the merchant class was one of the main factors in the tribal community. Two important merchant families in Qatar before the oil era were the Darwish and the Al Mana. Originally, the merchant class ran successful businesses, trading in all kinds of goods, pearling, smuggling and investing funds to ensure greater returns. After oil production began, the merchant class branched out into areas such as banking sector, the automobile industry, real estate, and the media business. The traditional values of the desert saw the appropriation of wealth as a resource for redistribution, a central tenet of badu life. The Darwish and the Al Mana maintain their influence and close interaction with the Al Thani today through joint business ventures and by providing advice to the Sheikhs on monopolies on supplying labor, housing, water, and goods to the oil company and concessions.

Nevertheless the interaction between the ruling tribe and the merchant class was governed by differences in social values. It is notable that intermarriage between the Al Thani and the merchant class is extremely rare. The Al Thani generally marry within their own tribe or from the Al Attiyah and the Al Misnad, binding these two tribes to them politically.

The commercial activities in the 1950s caused an increased politicizing of the Al Thani. As their resources and incomes grew, all male members were given the title ‘Sheikh’, a title previously only bestowed upon the head of a tribe. At the same time they were accorded a monthly stipend. These initiatives created a political elite and new policy departing from the traditional socio-cultural patterns. No public dissent is tolerated in Qatar, opposition usually manifests itself in intrigues or behind-the-scenes grumbling by aggrieved parties.

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